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‘Worst of All Worlds’ as Neoliberal BJP Wins India Elections in Landslide May 17, 2014

Posted by rogerhollander in India, Religion, Right Wing.
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Roger’s note: I had no sooner posted an article about neo-Nazism in Europe, where I commented that the phenomenon is world wide, than I came across this analysis of the results of the Indian election.  Apart from virulent and racist Hinduism represented by the BJP, there is the lesson of what elections really stand for in capitalist democracy.  Indian voters had the choice between the endemically corrupt Nehru/Ghandi Congress Party dynasty versus the racist BJP, both parties sold out to the corporate elite.  Makes one think about Democrats and Republicans, doesn’t it?

Critics say victory of Hindu nationalist party and asendancy of Narendra Modi put nation on perilous course

- Jon Queally, staff writer

The BJP’s Narendra Modi will be India’s next Prime Minister which critics say puts India on a perilous path of neoliberal economics and nationalist politics. (Photo: Hindustan Times)In national elections in India, the rightwing Hindu nationalist party, called the Bharatiya Janata Party (or BJP), has won a landslide victory for the country’s parliament and their leader, businessman Narendra Modi from Gujurat, is now set to become the nation’s next Prime Minister.

According to Reuters:

With more than six times the seats of its closest rival, Modi’s is the most decisive mandate for any leader since the 1984 assassination of prime minister Indira Gandhi propelled her son to office. Since 1989, India has been governed by coalitions.

The BJP was winning in 278 seats of the 543-seat parliament, counting trends showed. An alliance led by the party was ahead in 337 seats, TV channel NDTV said.

Though many are framing the BJP’s victory as the result of widespread disgust with the current government, led by the Congress Party, and a win for those calling for an end to systematic corruption in the world’s most populous democratic state—critics of the neoliberal BJP say its ascendency puts India on a perilous path.

For progressive-minded Indians, says Vijay Prashad, a historian and professor at American University of Beirut, the BJP victory “is the worst of all worlds.”

In statements ahead of the elections, activist and author Arundhati Roy said that India’s election were not about serving the interests of the nation’s poor and disenfranchised, but about “which corporation would come to power.”

Referring directly to the now victorious Modi, Roy stated, “This time, [the elections were] corporate war and he is a corporate candidate.” She indicated that all the major parties continue to ignore the pervasive poverty, including mass malnutrition which plague vast sections of the country.  Despite India having the third-fastest growing economy in the world, Roy said, its democracy is being steadily destroyed by “unequally distributed wealth” and a political elite that pays only lip service to the nation’s farmers, marginalized youth, and  underclass.

To de-mystify Modi’s victory and put his party in context, Prashad explains:

“BJP never ran against the roots of inequality or deprivation, but only what it deemed to be its symptom – corruption. This was a clever strategy. It both rode the anti-Congress wave, which had been produced by anger at the inequalities in the country, and it mollified the corporate community, which would not have been interested in any criticism of the policies of neoliberalism.”The BJP’s record in governance is not any different from that of the Congress – with inequality and corruption being the order of the day in its bastion of Gujarat, for instance. To take one indicator as illustrative, in Gujarat the mal-nutrition rate is so low that it is worse than the average level of malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa (where the rates of mal-nutrition remain very disturbing). Gujarat’s ‘development model’ also favored the privileged businessmen of the ruling party, the BJP, and its chief minister, Narendra Modi. Family firms such as the Adani group earned substantial gifts from the BJP government, which enhanced their profits, and helped Gujarat increase its own profile as “open for business.”

Modi was able to dodge questions of the “Gujarat Model.” He was quickly anointed by the BJP as its Prime Ministerial candidate and hastily favored by the media with far more coverage than any other politician. Modi ran as the development candidate with a carefully calibrated argument – he suggested that it was not neo-liberalism that created inequality, but its symptom, namely corruption, which the BJP tied to the mast of the Congress. In other words, the BJP never ran against the roots of inequality or deprivation, but only what it deemed to be its symptom – corruption. This was a clever strategy. It both rode the anti-Congress wave, which had been produced by anger at the inequalities in the country, and it mollified the corporate community, which would not have been interested in any criticism of the policies of neoliberalism.

Writing in the Guardian on Friday, Indian author and writer Pankaj Mishra argues that with Modi at the helm, India is facing “its most sinister period since independence.” Providing context for both Modi’s rise within the BJP and the rightwing fanaticism of the party now set to control India, Mishra writes:

Modi is a lifelong member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary Hindu nationalist organisation inspired by the fascist movements of Europe, whose founder’s belief that Nazi Germany had manifested “race pride at its highest” by purging the Jews is by no means unexceptional among the votaries of Hindutva, or “Hinduness”. In 1948, a former member of the RSS murdered Gandhi for being too soft on Muslims. The outfit, traditionally dominated by upper-caste Hindus, has led many vicious assaults on minorities. A notorious executioner of dozens of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 crowed that he had slashed open with his sword the womb of a heavily pregnant woman and extracted her foetus. Modi himself described the relief camps housing tens of thousands of displaced Muslims as “child-breeding centres”.

“Modi is never less convincing than when he presents himself as a humble tea-vendor, the son-of-the-soil challenger to the Congress’s haughty dynasts. His record as chief minister is predominantly distinguished by the transfer – through privatisation or outright gifts – of national resources to the country’s biggest corporations. His closest allies – India’s biggest businessmen – have accordingly enlisted their mainstream media outlets into the cult of Modi as decisive administrator; dissenting journalists have been removed or silenced.”.

Such rhetoric has helped Modi sweep one election after another in Gujarat. A senior American diplomat described him, in cables disclosed by WikiLeaks, as an “insular, distrustful person” who “reigns by fear and intimidation”; his neo-Hindu devotees on Facebook and Twitter continue to render the air mephitic with hate and malice, populating the paranoid world of both have-nots and haves with fresh enemies – “terrorists”, “jihadis”, “Pakistani agents”, “pseudo-secularists”, “sickulars”, “socialists” and “commies”. Modi’s own electoral strategy as prime ministerial candidate, however, has been more polished, despite his appeals, both dog-whistled and overt, to Hindu solidarity against menacing aliens and outsiders, such as the Italian-born leader of the Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, Bangladeshi “infiltrators” and those who eat the holy cow.

Modi exhorts his largely young supporters – more than two-thirds of India’s population is under the age of 35 – to join a revolution that will destroy the corrupt old political order and uproot its moral and ideological foundations while buttressing the essential framework, the market economy, of a glorious New India. In an apparently ungovernable country, where many revere the author of Mein Kampf for his tremendous will to power and organisation, he has shrewdly deployed the idioms of management, national security and civilisational glory.

Boasting of his 56-inch chest, Modi has replaced Mahatma Gandhi, the icon of non-violence, with Vivekananda, the 19th-century Hindu revivalist who was obsessed with making Indians a “manly” nation. Vivekananda’s garlanded statue or portrait is as ubiquitous in Modi’s public appearances as his dandyish pastel waistcoats. But Modi is never less convincing than when he presents himself as a humble tea-vendor, the son-of-the-soil challenger to the Congress’s haughty dynasts. His record as chief minister is predominantly distinguished by the transfer – through privatisation or outright gifts – of national resources to the country’s biggest corporations. His closest allies – India’s biggest businessmen – have accordingly enlisted their mainstream media outlets into the cult of Modi as decisive administrator; dissenting journalists have been removed or silenced.

____________________________________

The Dark Clown: Spectacle, charade and the Dark Politics of Rob Ford November 21, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Canada, Toronto.
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Roger’s note: As a former member of the Toronto Council, I have been following the Ford fiasco with interest, but mostly disgust.  As the article below will demonstrate, it is not Ford’s drug and mafia connections or his vulgar behavior that is of primary concern; rather his mean-spirited regime, his intimate connection to the ultra right Harper federal government, and what this all means for ordinary working people and those in need of essential social services in Toronto.

 

| November 19, 2013, http://www.rabble.ca 

 

Illustration by Arlene Bishop

 

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is not an accident. He’s not a car that suddenly lost control of the steering and veered off the road.

Is Rob Ford cunning or pathetic? Or both? Is he a ridiculous political clown who got elected by fooling everyone? Ford doesn’t only show us the flaws in Toronto’s system of municipal governance. He shows us what the radical right has brought into politics.

Something that I will call Dark Politics. Political ideology that accompanies economic neoliberalism. Politics that seeks to obfuscate, misinform, change the rules of conduct and flourishes most when no light of truth is shone upon it.

It continually seeks to convince a weary public that government is the problem and that funnelling tax dollars upward and lowering taxes on wealthy corporations, while driving down wages, is the best way out of any economic slump — despite all evidence to the contrary. That rich people are “job creators” that should not be burdened with tax woes because of all the good they are doing for the economy.

 

Tax burdens shifted from prosperous businesses, corporations and the wealthy onto the backs of the average tax payer creating an ever alarming divide between the 1% and the rest of us. This created a self fulfilling prophecy about the trust worthiness of governments. Governments elected to carry out this agenda were backed by powerful financial interests that paved the way for governments to become almost indistinguishable from administrative arms of corporations.

It is pathological politics that lives by its own circular logic. Attempts to engage it with facts and logic are quickly countered with an Escher-like road around any sense of sound reason. Logical premises fly out the window and a bizarro world of normalizing the absurd ensues.

 

Just as the Christian right demands that creationism be taught alongside evolution, as though the two things deserve equal billing, Dark Politics routinely demands that equivalencies be made where no equivalency exists.

Dark Politics demands that corporate psychopathy be treated, and often with even less criticism, as organizations that desire to better society for all of us and our planet. It expects that under the guise of “balance” a far right radical should be viewed through the very same lens as a slightly left leaning moderate.

 

Only it is the moderate who ends up being labeled as some anti-business spend-happy job killing socialist. It demands that the likes of Sun TV be regarded as equally deserving of the public trust as the CBC. In this altered state, America’s Fox News portrays itself as a “real” and balanced voice in a liberal media conspiracy.

With the rise of economic neoliberalism and the Dark Politics that came with it, certain ideas took hold that became increasingly pervasive and practically invisible.

 

Ideas such as the notion that the role of government should be increasingly inched towards the ultimate goal of doing little more than reducing taxes while begrudgingly still paying for things like the military and a few other “essential” services. That government should largely divorce itself from civic engagement or from acting as an equalizing mechanism. From fulfilling the collective will of the people.

 

Governments that continued the role they had for generations, even if they had balanced books, were labelled “tax-and-spend liberals.” Meanwhile governments that cut services and turned surpluses into debt laid claim to being the fiscally responsible choice.

 

It was within this ideology that Rob Ford achieved his support. He would be the cost cutter — cutting taxes, cutting government, taking care of your money. Don’t look over there at the broader picture of multi-billion dollar multinationals getting billions in subsidies and tax breaks, look instead at how much money those lazy union protected city workers are getting! Don’t peel back the curtain on what goes on with developments in Toronto, look at the “gravy” of municipal programs for the poor.

 

 

In spite of what can only be described as “off-the-rails” behaviour of Tea Party style politicians: the crazy antics, hypocrisy and spectacle that so many Tea Party style politicians display — Ford included — the ideas behind Dark Politics nevertheless persist.

 

As though the very side-tracking with all the political entertainment allowed these ideas to sneak past the radar. To sit undetected in people’s brains, while we looked away at the three ring circus. Move the goalposts so far to the right so that less fringe ideas seem normal and rational in comparison.

 

It is politics that strays ever further from fact, evidence, reason, science and especially from empathy and compassion. It is contemptuous of these things even.

Ford was an ideal candidate for Dark Politics. His populist “everyman” persona — in spite of being a member of the 1% — meant he was successfully able to co-opt the very type of citizen that is most harmed by Dark Politics. Inspire their loyalty even. His personal failings were excused and separated from his politics and his policies. His short comings actually appeared to aid pushing through his agenda. A Dark Politics agenda that always supports increasing inequality.

But Rob Ford’s personal conduct should not be separated from his politics. His personal conduct displays a lack of empathy and a sense of entitlement and so does his politics. And he certainly didn’t rise to the office of Mayor alone. He had many backers right there with him. Enabling him all the way.

 

Ford’s conduct is the politics of entitlement taken to an extreme. His addiction problems simply highlight how far you can go before you cross a line with a core segment of political and public supporters who are believers.

Whatever Ford does, no matter how out there it is, he has thus far managed to elude normal consequences. And as far as Ford Nation sees it, if anyone attempts to hold him accountable then they are the ones victimizing him.

Rob Ford may seem to be an anomaly — an outrageous example of a politician gone off the rails, but he is in fact an example of what Dark Politics allows in. Ford also demonstrates how far afield things have moved.

 

Even though most of his political supporters have now jumped ship, they do not seem to be taking any issue with the politics that brought someone like Ford to power in the first place.

 

Ford was a clear and obvious liar before he was ever elected as Mayor. He clearly had substance abuse issues before he was elected. But the right didn’t care. They supported his views, enabled him and aided his rise to power because ideology always trumps everything else in political extremes, whether it’s right or left. He was on the winning side, so he had eager members to join his gang and overlook or be in denial about his obvious short comings.

 

Now they divorce themselves from his antics and try to claim that his character is no reflection on their ideology. But it is profoundly a reflection of their ideology. For it was this ideology that gave them their willful blindness in the first place. Because there were plenty of others who could see Rob Ford for what he was right out of the gate.

We must not lose sight of the political darkness that Ford represents. Rob Ford should be an indictment of radical right-wing politics in Canada. The Tea Party and what it has wrought, should be an indictment of radical right wing politics in the United States.

How far must things go before the public starts to wake up to the political lies they have been sold?

 

Rob Ford is not a champion of the little guy. The little guy is never what politics for the rich and by the rich is about. The Rob Ford sideshow is merely Dark Politics accidentally showing it’s hand in ushering in a dark age of the decline of reason and social responsibility for government, business and citizens alike.

Heather Morgan is a writer and musician living in Toronto. She tweets @HeatherMoandCo

Illustration by Arlene Bishop

The Extraordinary Pierre Omidyar November 18, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Media, Poverty, Right Wing.
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Roger’s note: This is an incredible piece of investigative journalism.  When I first read that Glenn Greenwald (I sincerely hope he has or will read this article) was leaving The Guardian to enter into a new journalist project financed by eBay founder,  the billionaire Pierre Omidyar, my initial response was, “Glenn, say it isn’t so.”  This was based on instinct.  It just didn’t smell right.  The article you are about to read pinpoints the source of the odor.  Greenwald’s work as an investigative journalist, first with his own Blog, then with salon.com, and finally with the Guardian, even prior to the Snowden revelations, was of vital importance with respect to its exposing the crimes of the Bush and Obama administrations.  In a sense, the I.F. Stone of our day.  Even if Omidyar wasn’t the sleeze bucket neo-Liberal that is pictured by Ames and Levin, you don’t magically overnight create independent journalism via anyone’s big bucks.  Salon and The Guardian have roots and a history of journalistic development for which there is no substitute.  Apart from exposing Omidyar, this article is a clinic on the way the ultra and neo-fascist right is working to destroy what is left of the democratic public sector; and we know from Germany and Italy in the 1930s what to expect when private corporations are in total control of the state.

By Mark Ames, and Yasha Levin

http://www.nsfwcorp.com, 11:51 a.m. November 15, 2013

“We ought to be looking at business as a force for good.”Pierre Omidyar

“Like eBay, Omidyar Network harnesses the power of markets to enable people to tap their true potential.”Omidyar Network, “Frequently Asked Questions”

* * The world knows very little about the political motivations of Pierre Omidyar, the eBay billionaire who is founding (and funding) a quarter-billion-dollar journalism venture with Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and Jeremy Scahill. What we do know is this: Pierre Omidyar is a very special kind of technology billionaire.

We know this because America’s sharpest journalism critics have told us.

In a piece headlined “The Extraordinary Promise of the New Greenwald-Omidyar Venture”, The Columbia Journalism Review gushed over the announcement of Omidyar’s project. And just in case their point wasn’t clear, they added the amazing subhead, “Adversarial muckrakers + civic-minded billionaire = a whole new world.”

Ah yes, the fabled “civic-minded billionaire”—you’ll find him two doors down from the tooth fairy.

But seriously folks, CJR really, really wants you to know that Omidyar is a breed apart: nothing like the Randian Silicon Valley libertarian we’ve become used to seeing.

“…billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo. Billionaires tend to have a finger in every pie: powerful friends they don’t want annoyed and business interests they don’t want looked at.

“By hiring Greenwald & Co., Omidyar is making a clear statement that he’s the billionaire exception….It’s like Izzy Stone running into a civic-minded plastics billionaire determined to take I.F. Stone’s Weekly large back in the day.”

Later, the CJR “UPDATED” the piece with this missing bit of “oops”:

“(UPDATE: I should disclose that the Omidyar Network helps fund CJR, something I didn’t know until shortly after I published this post.)”

No biggie. Honest mistake. And anyway, plenty of others rushed to agree with CJR’s assessment. Media critic Jack Shafer at Reuters described Omidyar’s politics and ideology as “close to being a clean slate,” repeatedly praising the journalism venture’s and Omidyar’s “idealism.” The “NewCo” venture with Greenwald “harkens back to the techno-idealism of the 1980s and 1990s, when the first impulse of computer scientists, programmers, and other techies was to change the world, not make more money,” Shafer wrote, ending his piece:

“As welcome as Omidyar’s money is, his commitment to the investigative form and an open society is what I’m grateful for this afternoon. You can never uphold the correct verdict too often.”

What all of these orgasmic accounts of Omidyar’s “idealism” have in common is a total absence of skepticism. America’s smartest media minds simply assume that Omidyar is an “exceptional” billionaire, a “civic-minded billionaire” driven by “idealism” rather than by profits. The evidence for this view is Pierre Omidyar’s massive nonprofit venture, Omidyar Network, which has distributed hundreds of millions of dollars to causes all across the world.

And yet what no one seems able to specify is exactly what ideology Omidyar Network promotes. What does Omidyar’s “idealism” mean in practice, and is it really so different from the non-idealism of other, presumably bad, billionaires? It’s almost as if journalists can’t answer those questions because they haven’t bothered asking them.

So let’s go ahead and do that now.

Since its founding in 2004, Omidyar Network has committed nearly $300 million to a range of nonprofit and for-profit “charity” outfits. An examination of the ideas behind the Omidyar Network and of the investments it has made suggests that its founder is anything but a “different” sort of billionaire. Instead, what emerges is almost a caricature of neoliberal ideology, complete with the trail of destruction that ensues when that ideology is put into practice. The generous support of the Omidyar Network goes toward “fighting poverty” through micro-lending, reducing third-world illiteracy rates by privatizing education and protecting human rights by expanding property titles (“private property rights”) into slums and villages across the developing world.

In short, Omidyar Network’s philanthropy reveals Omidyar as a free-market zealot with an almost mystical faith in the power of “markets” to transform the world, end poverty, and improve lives—one micro-individual at a time.

All the neoliberal guru cant about solving the world’s poverty problems by unlocking the hidden “micro-entrepreneurial” spirit of every starving Third Worlder is put into practice by Omidyar Network’s investments. Charity without profit motive is considered suspect at best, subject to the laws of unintended consequences; good can only come from markets unleashed, and that translates into an ideology inherently hostile to government, democracy, public politics, redistribution of land and wealth, and anything smacking of social welfare or social justice.

In literature published by Omidyar Network, the assumption is that technology is an end in itself, that it naturally creates beneficial progress, and that the world’s problems can be solved most effectively with for-profit business solutions.

The most charitable thing one can say about Omidyar’s nonprofit network is that it reflects all the worst clichés of contemporary neoliberal faith. In reality, it’s much worse than that. In many regions, Omidyar Network investments have helped fund programs that create worsening conditions for the world’s underclass, widening inequalities, enhancing exploitation, pushing millions of people into crippling debt and supporting anti-poverty programs that, in some cases, resulted in mass-suicide by the rural poor.

* * Pierre Omidyar was one of the biggest early backers of the for-profit micro-lending industry. Through Omidyar Network, as well as personal gifts and investments, he has funnelled around $200 million into various micro-lending companies and projects over the past decade, with the goal of establishing an investment-grade microfinance sector that would be plugged into Wall Street and global finance. The neoliberal theory promised to unleash billions of new micro-entrepreneurs; the stark reality is that it saddled untold numbers with crushing debt and despair.

One of his first major investments into micro-lending came in 2005, when Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pam gave Tufts University, their alma mater, $100 million to create the “Omidyar-Tufts Microfinance Fund,” a managed for-profit fund dedicated to jump-starting the growth of the micro-finance industry. At the time, Tufts announced that Omidyar’s gift was the “largest private allocation of capital to microfinance by an individual or family.”

With the Tufts fund, Omidyar wanted to go beyond mere charitable donations to specific micro-lending organizations that targeted the developing world’s poorest. At the same time, he wanted to create a whole new environment in which for-profit micro-lending companies could be self-sustaining and generate big enough profits to attract serious global investors.

This idea was at the core of Omidyar’s vision of philanthropy: he believed that microfinance would eradicate poverty faster and better if it was run on a for-profit basis, and not like a charity.

“If you want to reach global scale — and we’re talking about hundreds of millions of people who need this — you can’t do it with philanthropy capital. There’s not enough charity capital out there. By connecting with an institutional investor like a university, we would like to increase the level of professional investor involvement in this sector to try to stimulate more commercially viable investment products,” Pierre Omidyar said in an interview at the time. “We ought to be looking at business as a force for good.”

The idea behind micro-loans is very simple and seductive. It goes something like this: the only thing that prevents the hundreds of millions of people living in extreme poverty from achieving financial success is their lack of access to credit. Give them access to micro-loans—referred to in Silicon Valley as “seed capital”—and these would-be successful business-peasants and illiterate shantytown entrepreneurs would pluck themselves out of the muck by their own homemade sandal straps. Just think of it: hundreds of millions of peasants working as micro-individuals, taking out micro-loans, making micro-rational investments into their micro-businesses, dutifully paying their micro-loan payments on time and working in concert to harness the deregulated power of the markets to collectively lift society out of poverty. It’s a grand neoliberal vision.

To that end, Omidyar has directed about a third of the Omidyar Network investment fund—or about $100 million—to support the micro-lending industry. The foundation calls this initiative “financial inclusion.”

Shockingly, micro-loans aren’t all that they’ve cracked up to be. After years of observation and multiple studies, it turns out that the people benefiting most from micro-loans are the big global financial players: hedge funds, banks and the usual Wall Street hucksters. Meanwhile, the majority of the world’s micro-debtors are either no better off or have been sucked into a morass of crippling debt and even deeper poverty, which offers no escape but death.

Take SKS Microfinance, an Omidyar-backed Indian micro-lender whose predatory lending practices and aggressive collection tactics have caused a rash of suicides across India.

Omidyar funded SKS through Unitus, a microfinance private equity fund bankrolled by the Omidyar Network to the tune of at least $11.7 million. ON boosted SKS in its promotional materials as a micro-lender that’s “serving the rural poor in India” and that exemplifies a company that’s providing “people with the means to address their needs and improve their lives.”

In 2010, SKS made headlines and stirred up bitter controversy about the role that profits should play in anti-poverty initiatives when the company went public with an IPO that generated about $358 million, giving SKS a market valuation of more than $1.6 billion. The IPO made millions for its wealthy investors, including the Omidyar-backed Unitus fund, which earned a cool $5 million profit from the SKS IPO, according to the Puget Sound Business Journal.

Some were bothered, but others saw it as proof that the power of the markets could be harnessed to succeed where traditional charity programs supposedly hadn’t. The New York Times reported:

“An Indian company with rich American backers is about to raise up to $350 million in a stock offering closely watched by philanthropists around the world, showing that big profits can be made from small helping-hand loans to poor cowherds and basket weavers.”

Controversy or not, SKS embodied Omidyar’s vision of philanthropy: it was a for-profit corporation that fought poverty while generating lucrative returns for its investors. Here would be proof-positive that the profit motive makes everyone a winner.

And then reality set in.

In 2012, it emerged that while the SKS IPO was making millions for its wealthy investors, hundreds of heavily indebted residents of India’s Andhra Pradesh state were driven to despair and suicide by the company’s cruel and aggressive debt-collection practices. The rash of suicides soared right at the peak of a large micro-lending bubble in Andhra Pradesh, in which many of the poor were taking out multiple micro-loans to cover previous loans that they could no longer pay. It was subprime lending fraud taken to the poorest regions of the world, stripping them of what little they had to live on. It got to the point where the Chief Minister of Andrah Pradesh publicly appealed to the state’s youth and young women not to commit suicide, telling them, “Your lives are valuable.”

The AP conducted a stunning in-depth investigation of the SKS suicides, and their reporting needs to be quoted at length to understand just how evil this program is. The article begins:

“First they were stripped of their utensils, furniture, mobile phones, televisions, ration cards and heirloom gold jewelry. Then, some of them drank pesticide. One woman threw herself in a pond. Another jumped into a well with her children.

“Sometimes, the debt collectors watched nearby.”

What prompted the AP investigation was the gulf between the reported rash of suicides linked to SKS debt collectors, and SKS’s public statements denying it had knowledge of or any role in the predatory lending abuses. However, the AP got a hold of internal SKS documents that contradicted their public denials:

“More than 200 poor, debt-ridden residents of Andhra Pradesh killed themselves in late 2010, according to media reports compiled by the government of the south Indian state. The state blamed microfinance companies – which give small loans intended to lift up the very poor – for fueling a frenzy of overindebtedness and then pressuring borrowers so relentlessly that some took their own lives.

“The companies, including market leader SKS Microfinance, denied it.

“However, internal documents obtained by The Associated Press, as well as interviews with more than a dozen current and former employees, independent researchers and videotaped testimony from the families of the dead, show top SKS officials had information implicating company employees in some of the suicides.”

The AP investigation and internal reports showed just how brutal the SKS microfinancing program was, how women were particularly targeted because of their heightened sense of shame and community responsibility—here is the brutal reality of financial capitalism compared to the utopian blather mouthed at Davos conferences, or in the slick pamphlets issued by the Omidyar Network:

“Both reports said SKS employees had verbally harassed over-indebted borrowers, forced them to pawn valuable items, incited other borrowers to humiliate them and orchestrated sit-ins outside their homes to publicly shame them. In some cases, the SKS staff physically harassed defaulters, according to the report commissioned by the company. Only in death would the debts be forgiven.

“The videos and reports tell stark stories:

“One woman drank pesticide and died a day after an SKS loan agent told her to prostitute her daughters to pay off her debt. She had been given 150,000 rupees ($3,000) in loans but only made 600 rupees ($12) a week.

“Another SKS debt collector told a delinquent borrower to drown herself in a pond if she wanted her loan waived. The next day, she did. She left behind four children.

“One agent blocked a woman from bringing her young son, weak with diarrhea, to the hospital, demanding payment first. Other borrowers, who could not get any new loans until she paid, told her that if she wanted to die, they would bring her pesticide. An SKS staff member was there when she drank the poison. She survived.

“An 18-year-old girl, pressured until she handed over 150 rupees ($3)—meant for a school examination fee—also drank pesticide. She left a suicide note: ‘Work hard and earn money. Do not take loans.'”

As a result of the bad press this scandal caused, the Omidyar Network deleted its Unitus investment from its website—nor does Omidyar boast of its investments in SKS Microfinance any longer. Meanwhile, Unitus mysteriously dissolved itself and laid off all of its employees right around the time of the IPO, under a cloud of suspicion that Unitus insiders made huge personal profits from the venture, profits that in theory were supposed to be reinvested into expanding micro-lending for the poor.

Thus spoke the profit motive.

Curiously, in the aftermath of the SKS micro-lending scandal, Omidyar Network was dragged into another political scandal in India when it was revealed that Omidyar and the Ford Foundation were placing their own paid researchers onto the staffs of India’s MPs. The program, called Legislative Assistants to MPs (LAMPs), was funded with $1 million from Omidyar Network and $855,000 from the Ford Foundation. It was shut down last year after India’s Ministry of Home Affairs complained about foreign lobbying influencing Indian MPs, and promised to investigate how Omidyar-funded research for India’s parliament may have been “colored” by an agenda.

But SKS is not the only microfinancing investment gone bad. The biggest and most reputable micro-lenders, including those funded by the Omidyar Network, have come under serious and sustained criticism for predatory interest rates and their aggressive debt-collection techniques.

Take BRAC, another big beneficiary of Omidyar’s efforts to boost “financial inclusion.”

Started in the early 1970s as a war relief organization, BRAC has grown into the largest non-governmental organization in the world. It employs over 100,000 people in countries across the globe. While BRAC is known mostly for its micro-lending operation activities, the outfit is a diversified nonprofit business operation. It is involved in education, healthcare and even develops its own hybrid seed varieties. Much of BRAC’s operations are financed by its micro-lending activities.

Omidyar Network praises BRAC for its work to “empower the poor to improve their own lives,” and has given at least $8 million to help BRAC set up micro-lending banking infrastructure in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

But BRAC seems to worry more about its own bottom line than it does about the well-being of its impoverished borrowers, the majority of whom are women and who pay an average annual interest rate of 40 percent.

This twisted sense of priority could be seen after one of the worst cyclones in the history of Bangladesh left thousands dead in 2007, destroying entire villages and towns in its path. In the cyclone’s wake, the Omidyar-funded BRAC micro-lending debt collectors showed up at the disaster zone along with other micro-lenders, and went to work aggressively shaking down borrowers, forcing some victims (mostly women) to go so far as to sell their relief/aid materials, or to take out secondary loans to pay off the first loans.

According to a study about micro-lenders in the aftermath of Cyclone Sidr:

“Sidr victims who lost almost everything in the cyclone, experienced pressure and harassment from non­governmental organisations (NGOs) for repayment of microcredit instalments. Such intense pressure led some of the Sidr­affected borrowers to sell out the relief materials they received from different sources. Such pressure for loan recovery came from large organisations such as BRAC, ASA and even the Nobel Prize winning organisation Grameen Bank.

“Even the most severely affected people are expected to pay back in a weekly basis, with the prevailing interest rate. No system of ‘break’ or ‘holiday’ period is available in the banks’ current charter. No exceptions are made during a time of natural calamity. The harsh rules practised by the microcredit lender organisations led the disaster affected people even selling their relief assistance. Some even had to sell their leftover belongings to pay back their weekly instalments.”

These tactics may be harsh, but they pay off for micro-lenders. And it’s a lucrative operation: BRAC primarily targets women, offers loans with predatory interest rates and uses traditional values and close village relationships to shame and pressure borrowers into selling and doing whatever they can to make their weekly payments. It works. Loan recovery rates for the industry average between 95 and 98 percent. For BRAC, that rate was a comfy 99.3 percent.

So do predatory micro-loans really help lift the world’s poorest people out of poverty? Neoliberal ideology says they do — and the Omidyar Network represents one of the purest distillations of that ideology put into practice in the poorest and most vulnerable parts of the world.

As Cambridge University economics professor Ha-Joon Chang argued, saying of micro-lending:

“[It] constitutes a powerful institutional and political barrier to sustainable economic and social development, and so also to poverty reduction. Finally, we suggest that continued support for microfinance in international development policy circles cannot be divorced from its supreme serviceability to the neoliberal/globalization agenda.”

Omidyar Network has followed the same disastrous neoliberal script in other areas of investment, particularly its investments into privatizing public schools in the US and in poor regions of Africa.

One of the earliest Omidyar investments went to an online private charity website for needy public schools here in the US. As David Sirota wrote, huge billionaire foundations and corporations have been holding children hostage by starving public-school funding and replacing it with “charity” money from the likes of the Wal-Mart Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Broad Foundation. We can add the Omidyar Network to this list as well.

Omidyar’s foundation invested in the same idea, but with a web 2.0 crowd-source twist: DonorsChoose.org allows individuals to pledge amounts as small as $10, and allows school teachers to get online asking for small sums to help their classrooms. The end result, of course, is that it normalizes the continued strangling of public schools and the sense that only private funding can save education.

Omidyar poured millions into DonorsChoose and organized donations from other Silicon Valley donors. At first, most public school teachers didn’t see the angle; many used the resource to raise funds for their own classrooms.

It wasn’t until DonorsChoose announced its partnership with the anti-public-education film “Waiting For Superman” that teachers realized they’d been duped. The movie promoted the myth that education could only be saved by the likes of Tea Party-backed school “reform” advocate Michelle Rhee. Teachers organized a boycott of DonorsChoose after the Omidyar-funded group announced it was essentially bribing its members with a $15 gift certificate to anyone who bought tickets for “Waiting for Superman.”

Two years later, DonorsChoose partnered and promoted yet another right-wing teacher-bashing propaganda film, “Won’t Back Down.”

Overseas, the Omidyar Network is embarking on a school privatization program that will make DonorsChoose look like Mother Theresa’s handiwork. Omidyar provided seed capital for a new Africa-based for-profit private school enterprise for the poor called Bridge International. In 2009, ON gave Bridge a total of $1.8 million; Matt Bannick, the top figure (managing partner) in the Omidyar Network, sits on Bridge International’s board of directors.

Bridge International’s first schools are being built in Kenya, and are slated to expand across the sub-Sahara, hoping to rope millions of poor African kids into its schools. Bridge’s strategic partner is the for-profit education giant, Pearson. Diane Ravitch, former US Assistant Secretary of Education and critic of school “reform” efforts, has warned about Pearson’s near-monopolistic power influencing the privatization of American education (see Ravitch’s article“The Pearsonization of the American Mind.”)

The idea behind Bridge International is to provide a franchised “school in a box” model under which each school teaches the exact same curriculum at the exact same time to every student. Teachers are given minimal training—they’re merely required to teach according to the script given to them and read out to their students, scripts delivered through Nook tablets. Students pay $5 a month—a lot for each student in areas as poor as sub-Saharan Africa. Currently one new Bridge International school is opening every 2.5 days around Kenya, overtaking public education—with plans to expand further.

It sounds like a good idea, but the problem is that Bridge’s business model has a very narrow set of supporters, namely: free-market think-tanks, the global for-profit education industry and proponents of a neoliberal utopia who want to defund public education and replace it with private schooling. Bridge is only a few years old, but criticism of its educational model is already piling up—even from centrist pro-business thinktanks like the Brookings Institution. Even at $4 or $5 a month, Bridge’s “low cost” education is too expensive for many in the developing world, forcing children to go to work and making families choose between buying food and paying for education. Naturally, food wins out. And that simply means that many children can’t afford to go school, which only increases and reinforces stratification and inequality.

The fight against illiteracy requires free, quality education that’s available to all children. What it doesn’t need is a bunch of neoliberal techno-disruptors who want to turn education into a for-profit industry that provides schooling only to those who can afford it. And anyway, the very notion that you can squeeze enough profit from millions of the poorest children in the world to attract mega venture capital, while providing quality education is absurd. That profit money is extracted from the very people Bridge is supposedly trying to help.

Still think that Pierre Omidyar is a “different” type of billionaire? Still convinced he’s a one-of-a-kind “civic-minded” idealist?

Then you might want to ask yourself why Omidyar is so smitten by the ideas of an economist known as “The Friedrich Hayek of Latin America.” His name is Hernando de Soto and he’s been adored by everyone from Milton Friedman to Margaret Thatcher to the Koch brothers. Omidyar Network poured millions of nonprofit dollars into subsidizing his ideas, helping put them into practice in poor slums around the developing world.

In February 2011, the Omidyar Network announced a hefty $4.96 million grant to a Peru-based free-market think tank, the Institute for Liberty & Democracy (ILD).

Perhaps no single investment by Omidyar more clearly reveals his orthodox neoliberal vision for the world—and what constitutes “civic-mindedness”—than his support for the ILD and its founder and president, Hernando De Soto, whom the ON has tapped to participate in other Omidyar-sponsored events.

De Soto is a celebrity in the world of neoliberal/libertarian gurus. He and his Institute for Liberty & Democracy are credited with popularizing a free-market version of Third World land reform and turning it into policy in city slums all across the developing world. Whereas “land reform” in countries like Peru—dominated by a tiny handful of landowning families—used to mean land redistribution, Hernando De Soto came up with a counter-idea more amenable to the Haves: give property title to the country’s poor masses, so that they’d have a secure and legal title to their shanties, shacks, and whatever land they might claim to live on or own.

De Soto’s pitch essentially comes down to this: Give the poor masses a legal “stake” in whatever meager property they live in, and that will “unleash” their inner entrepreneurial spirit and all the national “hidden capital” lying dormant beneath their shanty floors. De Soto claimed that if the poor living in Lima’s vast shantytowns were given legal title ownership over their shacks, they could then use that legal title as collateral to take out microfinance loans, which would then be used to launch their micro-entrepreneurial careers. Newly-created property holders would also have a “stake” in the ruling political and economic system. It’s the sort of cant that makes perfect sense to the Davos set (where De Soto is a star) but that has absolutely zero relevance to problems of entrenched poverty around the world.

Since the Omidyar Network names “property rights” as one of the five areas of focus, it’s no surprise that Omidyar money would eventually find its way into Hernando De Soto’s free-market ideas mill. In 2011, Omidyar not only gave De Soto $5 million to advance his ideas—he also tapped De Soto to serve as a judge in an Omidyar-sponsored competition for projects focused on improving property rights for the poor. The more you know about Hernando De Soto, the harder it is to see Omidyar’s financial backing as “idealistic” or “civic-minded.”

For one thing, De Soto is the favorite of the very same billionaire brothers who play villains to Omidyar’s supposed hero—yes, the reviled Koch brothers. In 2004, the libertarian Cato Institute (neé “The Charles Koch Foundation”) awarded Hernando De Soto its biannual “Milton Friedman Prize”—which comes with a hefty $500,000 check—for “empowering the poor” and “advancing the cause of liberty.” De Soto was chosen by a prize jury consisting of such notable humanitarians as former Pinochet labor minister Jose Piñera, Vladimir Putin’s economic advisor Andrei Illarionov, Washington Post neoconservative columnist Anne Applebaum, FedEx CEO Fred Smith, and Milton Friedman’s wife Rosie. Milton was in the audience during the awards ceremony; he heartily approved.

Indeed, Hernando De Soto is de facto royalty in the world of neoliberal-libertarian gurus—he’s been called “The Friedrich von Hayek of Latin America,” not least because Hayek launched De Soto’s career as a guru more than three decades ago.

So who is Hernando De Soto, where do his ideas come from, and why might Pierre Omidyar think him deserving of five million dollars — ten times the amount the Koch Brothers awarded him?

De Soto was born into an elite “white European” family in Peru, who fled into exile in the West following Peru’s 1948 coup—his father was the secretary to the deposed president. Hernando spent most of the next 30 years in Switzerland, getting his education at elite schools, working his way up various international institutions based in Geneva, serving as the president of a Geneva-based copper cartel outfit, the International Council of Copper Exporting Countries, and working as an official in GATT (General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs).

De Soto didn’t return to live in Peru until the end of the 1970s, to oversee a new gold placer mining company he’d formed with a group of foreign investors. The mining company’s profits suffered due to Peru’s weak property laws and almost non-existent cultural appreciation of property title, especially among the country’s poor masses—De Soto’s investors pulled out of the mining venture after visiting the company’s gold mines and seeing hundreds of peasants panning on the company’s concessions. That experience inspired De Soto to change Peruvians’ political assumptions regarding property rights. Rather than start off by trying to convince them that foreign mining firms should have exclusive rights to gold from traditionally communal Peruvian lands, De Soto came up with a clever end-around idea: giving property title to the masses of Peru’s poor living in the vast shanties and shacks in the slums of Lima and cities beyond. It was a long-term strategy to alter cultural expectations about property and ownership, thereby improving the investment climate for mining companies and other investors. The point was to align the masses’ assumptions about property ownership with those of the banana republic’s handful of rich landowning families.

In 1979, De Soto organized a conference in Peru’s capital Lima, featuring Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek as speakers and guests. At the time, both Friedman and Hayek were serving as key advisors to General Augusto Pinochet’s “shock therapy” program in nearby Chile, an economic experiment that combined libertarian market policies with concentration camp terror.

Two years after De Soto’s successful conference in Lima, in 1981, Hayek helped De Soto set up his own free-market think tank in Lima, the “Institute for Liberty and Democracy” (ILD). The ILD became the first of a large international network of right-wing neoliberal think tanks connected to the Mother Ships—Cato Institute, Heritage Foundation, and Britain’s Institute for Economic Affairs, Margaret Thatcher’s go-to think tank. By 1983, De Soto’s Institute was also receiving heavy funding from Reagan’s Cold War front group, the National Endowment for Democracy, which promoted free-market think tanks and programs around the world, and by the end of Reagan decade, De Soto produced his first manifesto, “The Other Path”—a play on the name of Peru’s Maoist guerrilla group, Shining Path, then fighting a bloody war for power. But whereas the Shining Path’s political program called for nationalizing and redistributing property, most of which was in the hands of a few rich families, De Soto’s “Other Path” called for maintaining property distribution as it was, and legalizing its current structure by democratizing property titles, the pieces of paper with the stamps. Everyone would become a micro-oligarch and micro-landowner under this scheme…

With help and funding from US and international institutions, De Soto quickly became a powerful political force behind the scenes. In 1990, De Soto insinuated himself into the inner circle of newly-elected president Alberto Fujimori, who quickly turned into a brutal dictator, and is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence for crimes against humanity, murder, kidnapping, and illegal wiretapping.

Under De Soto’s influence, Fujimori’s politics suddenly changed; almost overnight, the populist Keynsian candidate became the free-market authoritarian “Chinochet” he governed as. As Fujimori’s top advisor, Hernando De Soto was the architect of so-called “Fujishock” therapy applied to Peru’s economy. Officially, De Soto served as Fujimori’s drug czar from 1990-1992, an unusual role for an economist given the fact that Peru’s army was fighting a brutal war with Peru’s powerful cocaine drug lords. At the time Peru was the world’s largest cocaine producer; as drug czar, Hernando De Soto therefore positioned himself as the point-man between Peru’s military and security services, America’s DEA and drug czar under the first President Bush, and Peru’s president Alberto Fujimori. It’s the sort of position that you’d want to have if you wanted “deep state” power rather than mere ministerial power.

During those first two years when De Soto served under Fujimori, human rights abuses were rampant. Fujimori death squads—with names like the “Grupo Colina”—targeted labor unions and government critics and their families. Two of the worst massacres committed under Fujimori’s reign, and for which he was later jailed, took place while De Soto served as his advisor and drug czar.

The harsh free-market shock-therapy program that De Soto convinced Fujimori to implement resulted in mass misery for Peru. During the two years De Soto served as Fujimori’s advisor, real wages plunged 40%, the poverty rate rose to over 54% of the population, and the percentage of the workforce that was either unemployed or underemployed soared to 87.3%.

But while the country suffered, De Soto’s Institute for Liberty and Democracy—the outfit that Omidyar gave $5 million to in 2011—thrived: its staff grew to over 100 as funds poured in. A World Bank staffer who worked with the ILD described it as,

“a kind of school for the country. Most of the important ministers, lawyers, journalists, and economists in Peru are ILD alumni.”

In 1992, Fujimori orchestrated a constitutional coup, disbanding Peru’s Congress and its courts, and imposing emergency rule-by-decree. It was another variation of the same Pinochet blueprint.

Just before Fujimori’s coup, De Soto indemnified himself by officially resigning from the cabinet. However in the weeks and months after the coup, De Soto provided crucial PR cover, downplaying the coup to the foreign press. For instance, De Soto told the Los Angeles Times that the public should temper their judgment of Fujimori’s coup:

“You’ve got to see this as the trial and error of a president who’s trying to find his way.”

In the New York Times, De Soto spun the coup as willed by the people, the ultimate democratic politics:

“People are fed up, fed up…[Fujimori] has attacked two hated institutions at just the right time. There is an enormous need to believe in him.”

Years later, Fujimori’s notorious spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos testified to Peru’s Congress that De Soto helped mastermind the 1992 coup. De Soto denied involvement; but in 2011, two years after Fujimori was jailed for crimes against humanity, De Soto joined the presidential campaign for Keiko Fujimori, the jailed dictator’s daughter and leader of Fujimori’s right-wing party. Keiko Fujimori ran on a platform promising to free her father from prison if she won; De Soto spent much of the campaign red-baiting her opponent as a Communist. That led Peru’s Nobel Prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa to denounce De Soto as a “fujimontesenista” with “few democratic credentials.”

So in the same year that De Soto was trying to put the daughter of Peru’s Pinochet in power and to spring the dictator from prison, Omidyar Network awarded him $5 million.

It was during Fujimori’s dictatorial emergency rule, from 1992-94, that De Soto rolled out a property-title pilot program in Lima, in which 200,000 households were given formal title. In 1996, Fujimori implemented De Soto’s property-titling program on a national scale, with help from the World Bank and a new government property agency staffed by people from De Soto’s Institute for Liberty and Democracy. By 2000, the magical promise of an explosion in bank credits to all the new micro-property owners never materialized; in fact, there was no noticeable difference in bank lending to the poor whatsoever, whether they had property title or not.

The World Bank and the project’s neoliberal supporters led by Hernando De Soto were not happy with data showing no uptick in lending, which threatened to unravel the entire happy theory behind property titling as the answer to Third World poverty. De Soto was in the process of peddling the same property-titling program to countries around the world; data was needed to justify the program. So the World Bank funded a new study in Peru in the early 2000s, and discovered something startling: In homes that had formal property titles, the parents in those homes spent up to 40% more time outside of their homes than they did before they were given title. De Soto took that statistic and argued that it was a good thing because it proved giving property title to homeowners made them feel secure enough to leave their shanties and shacks. The assumption was that in the dark days before shanty dwellers had legal titles, they were too scared to leave their shacks lest some other savage steal it from them while they were out shopping.

No one ever conclusively explained why shanty parents were spending so much more time outside of their homes, but the important thing was that it made everyone forget the utter failure of the property title program’s core promise—that property titles would ignite micro-lending thanks to the collateral of the micro-entrepreneur’s micro-shack as collateral. Thanks to De Soto’s salesmanship and the backing of the world’s neoliberal nomenklatura — Bill Clinton called De Soto “the world’s greatest living economist” and he was praised by everyone from Milton Friedman to Vladimir Putin to Margaret Thatcher. The disappointing results in Peru were ignored, and De Soto’s program was extended to developing countries around the world including Egypt, Cambodia, the Philippines, Indonesia and elsewhere. And in nearly every case, De Soto’s Institute for Liberty and Democracy has taken the lead in advising governments and selling the dream of turning titled slum-dwellers into micro-entrepreneurs.

The real change brought by De Soto’s property-titling program has ranged from nil to nightmarish.

In Cambodia, where the World Bank implemented De Soto’s land-titling program in 2001, poor and vulnerable people in the capital Phnom Penh have suffered at the hands of land developers and speculators who’ve used arson, police corruption and violence to forcibly evict roughly 10% of the city’s population from their homes in more valuable districts, relocating them to the city outskirts.

An article in Slate titled “The De Soto Delusion” described what happened in Cambodia when the land-titling program was first implemented:

“In the nine months or so leading up to the project kickoff, a devastating series of slum fires and forced evictions purged 23,000 squatters from tracts of untitled land in the heart of Phnom Penh. These squatters were then plopped onto dusty relocation sites several miles outside of the city, where there were no jobs and where the price of commuting to and from central Phnom Penh (about $2 per day) surpassed whatever daily wage they had been earning in town before the fires. Meanwhile, the burned-out inner city land passed immediately to some of the wealthiest property developers in the country.”

De Soto and his Institute for Liberty and Democracy have advised property-title programs elsewhere too—Haiti, Dominican Republic, Panama, Russia—again with results ranging from nil to bad. Even where it doesn’t lead to mass evictions and violence, it has the effect of shifting a greater tax burden onto the poor, who end up paying more in property taxes, and of forcing them to pony up for costly filing fees to gain title, fees that they often cannot afford. Property title in and of itself—without a whole range of reforms in governance, corruption, education, income, wealth distribution and so on—is clearly no panacea. But it does provide an alternative to programs that give money to the poor and redistribute wealth, and that alone is a good thing, if you’re the type smitten by Hernando De Soto—as Omidyar clearly is.

Studies of property-titling programs in the slums of Brazil and Manila revealed that it created a new bitterly competitive culture and bifurcation, in which a small handful of titled slum dwellers quickly learn to benefit by turning into micro-slumlords renting out dwellings to lesser slum dwellers, who subsequently find themselves forced to pay monthly fees for their shanty rooms—creating an underclass within the underclass. De Soto has described these slums as “acres of diamonds”—wealth waiting to be unlocked by property titling—and his acolytes even coined a new acronym for slums: “Strategic Low-income Urban Management Systems.”

All of which begs the obvious question: If De Soto’s property-title program is such a proven failure in case after case, why is it so popular among the world’s political and business elites?

The answer is rather obvious: It offers a simple, low-cost, technocratic market solution to the problem of global poverty—a complex and costly problem that can only be alleviated by dedicating huge amounts of resources and a very different politics from the one that tells us that markets are god, markets can solve everything. Even before Omidyar committed $5 million to the dark plutocratic “idealism” De Soto represents, he was Tweeting his admiration for De Soto:

“Brilliant dinner with Hernando de Soto. Property rights underlie and enable everything.”

Indeed, property rights underlie and enable everything Omidyar wants to hear—but distract and divert from what the targets of those programs might actually need or be asking for.

Which brings us back to the wonderful words written about Pierre Omidyar last month: Where is the proof that he’s a “civic-minded” billionaire, a “different” billionaire, an “idealistic” billionaire who’s in it for ideals and not for profit? How is Omidyar any different from any other billionaire—when he is funding the same programs and pushing the same vision for the world backed by the Kochs, Soros, Gates, and every other neoliberal billionaire?

When you scratch the surface of his investments and get a sense of what sort of ideal world he’d like to make, it becomes clear that Omidyar is no different from his peers.

And the reason that matters, of course, is because Pierre Omidyar’s dystopian vision is merging with Glenn Greenwald’s and Laura Poitras’ monopoly on the crown jewels of the National Security Agency — the world’s secrets, our secrets — and using the value of those secrets as the capital for what’s being billed as an entirely new, idealistic media project, an idealism that the CJR and others promise will not shy away from taking on power.

The question, however, is what defines power to a neoliberal mind? We’re going to take a wild guess here and say: The State.

So brace yourself, you’re about to get something you’ve never seen before: billionaire-backed journalism taking on the power of the state. How radical is that? To quote “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman:

“What has been adjudicated and established in the wake of Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement is the ability of the press to basically write or broadcast almost anything about the government.There’s very few restrictions in that way. It’s not true when we’re talking about private power, especially major Fortune 500 corporations, or people worth more than, say, a billion dollars.”

In other words: look out Government, you’re about to be pummeled by a crusading, righteous billionaire! And corporate America? Ah, don’t worry. Your dirty secrets—freshly transferred from the nasty non-profit hands of the Guardian to the aggressively for-profit hands of Pierre Omidyar—are safe with us.

Colombia Nationwide Strike Against ‘Free Trade,’ Privatization, Poverty August 25, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Colombia, Foreign Policy, Human Rights, Imperialism, Labor, Latin America.
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Roger’s note: I am publishing this articles so that readers in the United States might know what’s going on in their 51st state.

Ignored by English-language media, rural uprisings spread across industries as hundreds of thousands protest US-backed govt

 

- Sarah Lazare, staff writer

Protests in Sincelejo (Photo: Marcha Patriotica)

A nationwide strike in Colombia—which started as a rural peasant uprising and spread to miners, teachers, medical professionals, truckers, and students—reached its 7th day Sunday as at least 200,000 people blocked roads and launched protests against a U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement and devastating policies of poverty and privatization pushed by US-backed right-wing President Juan Manuel Santos.

“[The strike is a condemnation] of the situation in which the Santos administration has put the country, as a consequence of its terrible, anti-union and dissatisfactory policies,” declared the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), the country’s largest union, in a statement.

The protests and strikes, largely ignored in the English-language media, have been met with heavy crackdown from Colombia’s feared police, with human rights organization Bayaca reporting shootings, torture, sexual assault, severe tear-gassing, arbitrary arrests, and other abuses on the part of state agents. Colombia’s Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon recently claimed that the striking workers are being controlled by the “terrorist” Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in a country known for using unverified claims of FARC connections as an excuse to launch severe violence against social movements.

“Violent clashes continue in rural areas where farmers and truck drivers have been setting up roadblocks since Monday, and the Santos administration has deployed 16,000 additional military personnel to ‘control the situation,'” Neil Martin of the Colombia-based labor solidarity organization Paso International told Common Dreams Sunday. “There have not been deaths reported in relation to this violence, but human rights organizations and YouTube videos have documented military personnel beating protestors, stealing supplies, carrying out vandalism unwarranted arrests, and generally inciting violence.”

Protesters are levying a broad range of concerns about public policies that devastate Colombia’s workers, indigenous, and Afro-Colombian communities. The US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement has forced small farmers to compete with subsidized US products, made them more vulnerable to market fluctuations, and eroded their protections and social safety nets through the implementation of neoliberal policies domestically. Farmers are demanding more protections and services in a country beset with severe rural poverty.

Meanwhile, the Colombian government is handing out sweetheart deals to international mining companies while creating bans and roadblocks for Colombian miners. Likewise, the government is giving multinational food corporations access to land earmarked for poor Colombians. Healthcare workers are fighting a broad range of reforms aimed at gutting and privatizing Colombia’s healthcare system. Truckers are demanding an end to low wages and high gas prices.

“This is the third or fourth large-scale non-military rural uprising this year,” Martin told Common Dreams.

Colombian workers organizing to improve their lives are met with an onslaught of state violence: Colombia is the deadliest country in the world for union activists, according to the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, and 37 activists were murdered in Colombia in the 1st half of 2013 alone, leading news weekly Semana reports.

Santos, who says he refuses to negotiate while the strikes are taking place, has so far been unsuccessful in his efforts to quell the swelling protests that are paralyzing much of the country, particularly in rural areas.

“[W]e just want solutions to our problems,” Javier Correa Velez, the head of a coffee-growers association called Dignidad Cafetera, told the Miami Herald. “The strike is simply a symptom of an illness that the entire agriculture sector is suffering from.”

(Photo: Twitter/@zonacero)

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Why Would Anyone Celebrate the Death of Margaret Thatcher? Ask a Chilean April 13, 2013

Posted by rogerhollander in Britain, Chile, Criminal Justice, Genocide, History, Human Rights, Latin America.
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rejoice-margaret-thatcher-dead-250

Thousands have taken to the streets to celebrate the death of Margaret Thatcher

Never have I witnessed a gap between the mainstream media and the public, quite like the last 24 hours since the death of Margaret Thatcher. While both the press and President Obama were uttering tearful remembrances, thousands took to the streets of the UK and beyond to celebrate. Immediately this drew strong condemnation of what were called “death parties”, described as “tasteless”, “horrible”, and “beneath all human decency.” Yet if the same media praising Thatcher and appalled by the popular response would bother to ask one of the people celebrating, they might get a story that doesn’t fit into their narrative, which is probably why they aren’t asking at all.

.I received a note this morning from the friend of a friend. She lives in the UK, although her family didn’t arrive there by choice. They had to flee Chile, like thousands of others, when it was under the thumb of General Augusto Pinochet. If you don’t know the details about Pinochet’s blood-soaked two-decade reign, you should read about them but take care not to eat beforehand. He was a merciless overseer of torture, rapes, and thousands of political executions. He had the hands and wrists of the country’s greatest folk singer Victor Jara broken in front of a crowd of prisoners before killing him. He had democratically elected Socialist President Salvador Allende shot dead at his desk. His specialty was torturing people in front of their families.

As Naomi Klein has written so expertly, he then used this period of shock and slaughter to install a nationwide laboratory for neoliberal economics. If Pinochet’s friend Milton Friedman had a theory about cutting food subsidies, privatizing social security, slashing wages, or outlawing unions, Pinochet would apply it. The results of these experiments became political ammunition for neoliberal economists throughout the world. Seeing Chile-applied economic theory in textbooks always boggles my mind. It would be like if the American Medical Association published a textbook on the results of Dr. Josef Mengele’s work in the concentration camps, without any moral judgment about how he accrued his patients.

Pinochet was the General in charge of this human rights catastrophe. He also was someone who Margaret Thatcher called a friend. She stood by the General even when he was exile, attempting to escape justice for his crimes. As she said to Pinochet, “[Thank you] for bringing democracy to Chile.”

Therefore, if I want to know why someone would celebrate the death of Baroness Thatcher, I think asking a Chilean in exile would be a great place to start. My friend of a friend took to the streets of the UK when she heard that the Iron Lady had left her mortal coil. Here is why:

“I’m telling [my daughter] all about the Thatcher legacy through her mother’s experience, not the media’s; especially how the Thatcher government directly supported Pinochet’s murderous regime, financially, via military support, even military training (which we know now, took place in Dundee University). Thousands of my people (and members of my family) were tortured and murdered under Pinochet’s regime- the fascist beast who was one of Thatcher’s closest allies and friend. So all you apologists/those offended [by my celebration] -you can take your moral high ground & shove it. YOU are the ones who don’t understand. Those of us celebrating are the ones who suffered deeply under her dictatorship and WE are the ones who cared. We are the ones who protested. We are the humanitarians who bothered to lift a finger to help all those who suffered under her regime. I am lifting a glass of champagne to mourn, to remember and to honour all the victims of her brutal regime, here AND abroad. And to all those heroes who gave a shit enough to try to do something about it.”

I should add here that I lived in Chile in 1995, when Pinochet had been deposed but was still in charge of the armed forces. I became friends with those who were tortured or had their families disappeared so Thatcher’s connection to Chile strikes a personal note with me. I also understand however, that similar explanations for “why people are celebrating” could be made by those with connections to Argentina, apartheid South Africa, Indonesia, Belfast, Gaza, or Baghdad. The case could also be made by those in the UK affected by Thatcher’s Pinochet-tested economic dictates who choose not to mourn.

It also matters because the 48 hours after a powerful public figure dies is when the halo becomes permanently affixed to their head. When Ronald Reagan passed away, a massive right wing machine went into motion aimed at removing him from all criticism. The Democrats certainly didn’t challenge this interpretation of history and now according to polls, people under 25 would elect Reagan over President Obama, even though Reagan’s ideas remain deeply unpopular. To put it crudely, the political battle over someone’s memory is a political battle over policy. In Thatcher’s case, if we gloss over her history of supporting tyrants, we are doomed to repeat them.

As Glenn Greenwald wrote so expertly in the Guardian, “There is absolutely nothing wrong with loathing Margaret Thatcher or any other person with political influence and power based upon perceived bad acts, and that doesn’t change simply because they die. If anything, it becomes more compelling to commemorate those bad acts upon death as the only antidote against a society erecting a false and jingoistically self-serving history.”

Or to put it even more simply, in the words, of David Wearing, “People praising Thatcher’s legacy should show some respect for her victims.” That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Let’s please show some respect for Margaret Thatcher’s victims. Let’s respect those who mourn everyday because of her policies, but choose this one day to wipe away the tears.Then let’s organize to make sure that the history she authored does not repeat.

Iceland’s On-going Revolution August 6, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Europe, Oregon, Revolution.
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Democracy 2.0: Iceland crowdsources new constitution

by Jérôme E. Roos on June 11, 2011

Post image for Democracy 2.0: Iceland crowdsources new constitutionIn
just three years, Iceland went from collapse to revolution and back to
growth. What can Spain and Greece learn from the Icelandic experience
and its embrace of direct democracy?

Just two or three years after its economy and government collapsed, Iceland is bouncing back with remarkable strength. This week, the small island nation earned praise
from foreign investors despite allowing its banks to collapse and
refusing to pay back some of its debt — belying the dominant idea among
Europe’s ruling class that bank failures and defaults necessarily engender disastrous economic consequences.

Now,
in an historically unprecedented move, the government has decided to
draft a new constitution with the online input of its citizens —
essentially crowdsourcing
the creation of Iceland’s real democracy. Rather than just involving
voters at the end of the process through a referendum, the Icelanders
have an opportunity, through social media, to be directly involved in
the writing process. It’s the ultimate affirmation of participatory
democracy. It’s Democracy 2.0.

How did Iceland get from there to here? And what are the lessons for Europe’s troubled periphery?

Back in 2009, months after the greatest banking collapse in economic history, the people of Iceland took to the streets en masse to
denounce the reckless bankers who had caused the crisis and the
clueless politicians who had allowed it to develop. Quietly, as the
world was busy watching the inauguration of President Obama, the people
of Iceland overthrew their government and demanded a referendum on the country’s debt.

In
the referendum, the Icelanders decided not to repay foreign creditors —
Great Britain and the Netherlands — who had so foolishly deposited
their savings in one of the world’s most over-leveraged banks, Icesave.
In fact, the President had already vetoed
the deal, so the referendum was largely symbolic, but still, the
outcome of the vote (93 percent against repayment) was a watershed in
the epic battle between people power and foreign financial interests.

Yet
what’s really interesting about the Icelandic case is not just the
referendum, but the fact that the consequences of the outcome were far
from being as disastrous
as Europe’s self-proclaimed economic ‘experts’ had predicted. In fact,
within just two years of the collapse of its government, Iceland is
bouncing back rapidly, and is actually being rewarded for it by foreign
investors. As the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday:

Iceland’s
first international bond offering since its spectacular economic and
banking collapse late in 2008 has been snapped up by investors. The
five-year $1 billion deal, yielding just under 5%, is a milestone in
rebuilding confidence internationally and follows a turnaround in the
economy, forecast to grow 2.25% this year.

So it’s no surprise that Iceland became a rallying point for the ‘indignados
in Spain during the mass protests that broke out there last month.
Spanish demonstrators could be seen carrying placards reading “Iceland
is my goal” and “I think of Iceland.” The Icelandic model has also come
to inspire the indignant protest movement in Greece, which is rapidly picking up steam. So what are Iceland’s main lessons for Europe’s troubled periphery?

First of all, make sure to read this excellent piece
by Robert Wade, my former Professor at the London School of Economics,
to understand how Iceland’s mistakes in the lead-up to the crisis were
just an extreme version of what we did on the continent: capital account
liberalization combined with financial deregulation and unprecedented
political disinterest in the face of an epic bubble blowing up right in
front of our eyes.

Wade helps us understand what not to do. But perhaps at this stage, it’s more interesting to find out what we should do. In
this respect, one overwhelming lesson jumps out: while letting banks
collapse and refusing to pay back foreign lenders certainly has negative
consequences in the short run, those consequences are born largely by
the reckless bankers who instigated the crisis in the first place.

Instead
of socializing the losses of the banks, making ordinary people pay for a
crisis they never caused, the Icelandic model forced the bankers to pay
for their own stupidity. During the Icelandic crisis, all three of the
country’s largest banks collapsed. The government didn’t save them.

Secondly, Iceland actually went after
those responsible — both to enact justice and to set a precedent that
this type of reckless speculation on the livelihoods of real people will
simply not be tolerated in the future. Key figures in the banking
sector have been arrested and a former prime minister has been formally charged. Treating reckless speculation as a crime is a crucial first step towards real democracy.

Thirdly, Iceland did what no one is supposed to be doing according to neoliberal dogma: just like Malaysia did — to the dismay of the IMF — during the East-Asian crisis of 1997-’98, the Icelandic government instituted capital controls
to stem the outflow of hot money from the country in the wake of its
banking collapse. The EU should have done the same (and can still do the
same) to stem the outflow of capital from the periphery.

Fourthly, and this is obviously the most crucial lesson of all, the people of Iceland managed to sever the neoliberal straitjacket
that had kept their politicians enthralled to the interests of the
financial sector for so long. Through mass mobilization, the people
toppled the government and instituted a radically new form of political
participation. The crowdsourcing of the constitution is the most
powerful symbol this new, real democracy.

As a result, the Icelandic people are now slowly but surely beginning to recover
from the worst ever economic collapse of any country during
peacetime. By contrast, countries like Greece, Spain, Ireland and
Portugal are still struggling — and likely to remain mired in deep
recession, if not outright depression, for years to come.

Untold suffering and hardship
will fall on millions of people as the ECB, IMF and Germany continue to
expect full repayment while imposing draconian (and ultimately
counterproductive) austerity measures. A lost generation
will flee these countries in a desperate search for opportunity.
Countless lives, businesses, families and dreams will be destroyed. And
for what? A handful of bankers who refuse to take a haircut?

What Iceland teaches us is that it need not be that way. The Atlantic currents and Arab winds have already reached
the European periphery. It’s just a matter of time before the first
government on the continent will be toppled by its people. Democracy 2.0
is on its way. No one can stop it now.

Deena Stryker, www.opednews.com, August 1, 2011 <!–

–>An Italian radio program’s st0ry about Iceland’s on-going revolution is a
stunning example of how little our media tells us about the rest of the world.
Americans may remember that at the start of the 2008 financial crisis, Iceland
literally went bankrupt.  The reasons were mentioned only in passing, and since
then, this little-known member of the European Union fell back into
oblivion.

As one European country after another fails or risks failing, imperiling the
Euro, with repercussions for the entire world, the last thing the powers that be
want is for Iceland to become an example. Here’s why:

Five years of a pure neo-liberal regime had made Iceland, (population 320
thousand, no army), one of the richest countries in the world. In 2003 all the
country’s banks were privatized, and in an effort to attract foreign investors,
they offered on-line banking whose minimal costs allowed them to offer
relatively high rates of return. The accounts, called IceSave, attracted many
English and Dutch small investors.  But as investments grew, so did the banks’
foreign debt.  In 2003 Iceland’s debt was equal to 200 times its GNP, but in
2007, it was 900 percent.  The 2008 world financial crisis was the coup de
grace. The three main Icelandic banks, Landbanki, Kapthing and Glitnir, went
belly up and were nationalized, while the Kroner lost 85% of its value with
respect to the Euro.  At the end of the year Iceland declared bankruptcy.

Contrary to what could be expected, the crisis resulted in Icelanders
recovering their sovereign rights, through a process of direct participatory
democracy that eventually led to a new Constitution.  But only after much
pain.

Geir Haarde, the Prime Minister of a Social Democratic coalition government,
negotiated a two million one hundred thousand dollar loan, to which the Nordic
countries added another two and a half million. But the foreign financial
community pressured Iceland to impose drastic measures.  The FMI and the
European Union wanted to take over its debt, claiming this was the only way for
the country to pay back Holland and Great Britain, who had promised to reimburse
their citizens.

Protests and riots continued, eventually forcing the government to resign.
Elections were brought forward to April 2009, resulting in a left-wing coalition
which condemned the neoliberal economic system, but immediately gave in to its
demands that Iceland pay off a total of three and a half million Euros.  This
required each Icelandic citizen to pay 100 Euros a month (or about $130) for
fifteen years, at 5.5% interest, to pay off a debt incurred by private parties
vis a vis other private parties. It was the straw that broke the reindeer’s
back.

What happened next was extraordinary. The belief that citizens had to pay for
the mistakes of a financial monopoly, that an entire nation must be taxed to pay
off private debts was shattered, transforming the relationship between citizens
and their political institutions and eventually driving Iceland’s leaders to the
side of their constituents. The Head of State, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, refused
to ratify the law that would have made Iceland’s citizens responsible for its
bankers’ debts, and accepted calls for a referendum.

Of course the international community only increased the pressure on Iceland.
Great Britain and Holland threatened dire reprisals that would isolate the
country.  As Icelanders went to vote, foreign bankers threatened to block any
aid from the IMF.  The British government threatened to freeze Icelander savings
and checking accounts. As Grimsson said: “We were told that if we refused the
international community’s conditions, we would become the Cuba of the North.
But if we had accepted, we would have become the Haiti of the North.” (How many
times have I written that when Cubans see the dire state of their neighbor,
Haiti, they count themselves lucky.)

In the March 2010 referendum, 93% voted against repayment of the debt.  The
IMF immediately froze its loan.  But the revolution (though not televised in the
United States), would not be intimidated. With the support of a furious
citizenry, the government launched civil and penal investigations into those
responsible for the financial crisis.  Interpol put out an international arrest
warrant for the ex-president of Kaupthing, Sigurdur Einarsson, as the other
bankers implicated in the crash fled the country.

But Icelanders didn’t stop there: they decided to draft a new constitution
that would free the country from the exaggerated power of international finance
and virtual money.  (The one in use had been written when Iceland gained its
independence from Denmark, in 1918, the only difference with the Danish
constitution being that the word ‘president’ replaced the word ‘king’.)

To write the new constitution, the people of Iceland elected twenty-five
citizens from among 522 adults not belonging to any political party but
recommended by at least thirty citizens. This document was not the work of a
handful of politicians, but was written on the internet. The constituent’s
meetings are streamed on-line, and citizens can send their comments and
suggestions, witnessing the document as it takes shape. The constitution that
eventually emerges from this participatory democratic process will be submitted
to parliament for approval after the next elections.

Some readers will remember that Iceland’s ninth century agrarian collapse was
featured in Jared Diamond’s book by the same name. Today, that country is
recovering from its financial collapse in ways just the opposite of those
generally considered unavoidable, as confirmed yesterday by the new head of the
IMF, Christine Lagarde to Fareed Zakaria. The people of Greece have been told
that the privatization of their public sector is the only solution.  And those
of Italy, Spain and Portugal are facing the same threat.

They should look to Iceland. Refusing to bow to foreign interests, that small
country stated loud and clear that the people are sovereign.

That’s why it is not in the news anymore.

Originally posted to Deena Stryker on Mon
Aug 01, 2011 at 08:47 AM PDT.

Chesa Boudin on Colombia’s Civil War December 26, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Colombia, Human Rights, Latin America, War.
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Posted on Dec 26, 2008, www.truthdig.com

book cover
amazon.com

By Chesa Boudin

In February 2007 I visited Colombia’s Chocó region as a guest of local Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities that had previously suffered forcible eviction from their communal lands. The phenomenon, known as forced migration or internal displacement, is so widespread across Colombia that the country trails only Iraq and Sudan in its number of internally displaced people. The communities that hosted me in Curvarado and Cacarica had recently returned to their homes after years of abuse at the hands of illegal paramilitary organizations intent on controlling their ancestral lands. Thanks to their determined efforts and support from a local NGO, Justicia y Paz (Justice and Peace), my hosts had been able to obtain legal title to their communal lands, an anomaly in a country where most forcibly displaced people lack the necessary resources or connections to navigate the legal bureaucracy. Despite their title to the land these communities remained frightened about threats from armed groups, so Justicia y Paz stationed observers to help document trespassing or attacks. 

The farmers who hosted me, and countless more farmers across Colombia, are caught in the midst of a conflict more complicated than most. Fueled by cocaine profits and U.S. military aid, it has raged for decades, pitting the government security forces and illegal paramilitary groups against various Marxist-inspired guerrilla movements. It is in this broader national context that fundamental human rights and self-determination of peoples come into constant, direct conflict with global economic growth and wealth accumulation in Colombia’s northwest Chocó region. The narrow isthmus, covered in mountainous tropical forests and dense swamplands, is increasingly the target site for potential development projects, including the completion of the Pan-American Highway, a pipeline to carry Venezuelan oil to Pacific ports, and an alternative shipping channel to the Panama Canal. In 1996, the price of land doubled following then-President Ernesto Samper’s announcement of a plan for a new inter-oceanic highway link connecting the Pacific and Atlantic. The Chocó has also attracted agriculture, timber, coal and mining interests both from Colombia and abroad. Peasants who happen to live on resource-rich territory suffer from a violent form of land speculation. In Colombia, neoliberal economic policies have gone hand in hand with militarization of a historic conflict.

“Beyond Bogotá: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia,” Gary Leech’s new book on Colombia, provides an engaging firsthand account of the country’s drug war. The book is structured around an 11-hour detention ordeal Leech underwent at the hands of the largest guerrilla group in the country, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in August 2006. Each of the 11 chapters in the book corresponds to one of the hours during which he was held at gunpoint on a coca farm in rural Colombia while the FARC higher-ups decided his fate. As Leech anxiously waits out his detention, he reflects back on his first trips to Latin America and his years reporting on Colombia’s drug war. The literary device succeeds; suspense and drama remain present throughout the book, and he provides an easy-to-follow background to the country’s civil strife, mostly narrated through first-person accounts. Luckily for Leech and his readers, he safely made it home to tell the tale. He writes with the raw passion and vivid energy of a wartime correspondent who regularly risks his life to cover stories ignored by major international media outlets. While most writers on Colombia only talk abstractly about policy, Leech goes into villages, speaks with people on the front lines and peels back the skin.

 

book cover

Beyond Bogotá

 By Garry Leech

Beacon Press, 272 pages

Demonstrating considerable courage and persistence, Leech managed to visit the hottest areas of Colombia’s conflict, survive shootouts and detentions, interview high-ranking leaders of the FARC and the AUC (United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) and visit coca farms and cocaine labs. He describes all this with compelling narrative and evocative characters, taking the reader with him on his investigative adventures. While his descriptive ability makes the reading enjoyable, it is his conclusions that leave the strongest impression.

President Alvaro Uribe, currently in his second term, is a darling of the U.S. State Department and has funneled billions in U.S. aid into a military strategy for solving the country’s problems. Meanwhile, he implements neoliberal economic policies that exacerbate the very wealth disparities that Leech sees as the root of the ongoing violence. As governor of the province of Antioquia, Uribe was instrumental in establishing a civilian vigilante organization, CONVIVIR, that quickly became a right-wing paramilitary network fighting a vicious war against the country’s leftist guerrillas and anyone accused of sympathizing with them. Uribe’s own father was killed by the FARC in a botched kidnapping attempt, blurring the line between the political and the personal in his support for those fighting against the guerrillas. As Leech reports, the paramilitaries that grew out of Uribe’s CONVIVIR are widely believed to be responsible for the majority of civilian deaths and human rights abuses in Colombia. Like the FARC and sectors of the state military apparatus, the paramilitaries became involved in drug trafficking and use cocaine profits to fund their arms purchases and operations. The FARC taxes growers in the regions it controls, and Leech suggests that the paramilitaries and military are actively involved in the more lucrative processing and trafficking as well.

Leech explains how, after Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. military aid to Colombia under the heading “Plan Colombia” rapidly shifted from anti-drug trafficking to combating “narco-terrorism.” The FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) and the national paramilitary organization AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia) appeared on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. While Leech is quick to condemn all of the armed groups in the conflict, much of his criticism is reserved for U.S. policy in the region. “There was also plenty of anti-American sentiment in Colombia, particularly in the rural regions targeted by Plan Colombia’s fumigations [of illegal coca crops]. Again, this anger wasn’t rooted in a hatred for U.S. freedoms; it resulted from U.S. government policies that destroyed the livelihoods of Colombian peasants without offering them any viable alternatives.” “Beyond Bogotá” gives voice to people whose opinions and perspectives are rarely included in mainstream media reports. 

Leech investigates a peasant massacre and finds that “U.S. military aid was being used as much to wage a war of terror as to fight a war against terror. At best, it appeared to be funding a selective war on terror—one that targeted civilians seen as suspected leftist terrorists, yet supported a military responsible for perpetrating state terrorism and maintaining close ties to right-wing terrorists.”

Moreover, according to Leech, the U.S.-led aerial fumigations of coca crops throughout Colombia have backfired; there is now a “super herbicide-resistant strain” of coca that is capable of yielding four times as many leaves from the same acreage. Thus, “although the U.S. and Colombian governments claimed that Plan Colombia was working because the fumigations were reducing the number of acres under cultivation … in reality coca production had remained relatively stable.” Meanwhile, Leech tells us, “Not only do coca farmers earn the least amount of profit among all those engaged in the production, trafficking, and sale of cocaine, but they are also the most vulnerable link in the chain because of their poverty and lack of mobility. Even with the widespread cultivation of coca, 85 percent of rural Colombians live in poverty. And at the close of the twentieth century, those poor farmers became the principal target in the U.S. war on drugs.”

President Uribe, a willing partner in the war on drugs, has succeeded in improving Colombia’s image in the international business community and increasing urban security. Yet the government presence in many rural areas is limited to military incursions without meaningful investment in development or economic and social infrastructure. Leech shows us the divide between rural and urban Colombia, narrating multiple political perspectives throughout. In one scene that takes place over a three-hour period, he interacts with pro-FARC rural peasants, then with nonaligned, pro-peace small-town residents, and finally with right-wing pro-Uribe urbanites. 

book cover

Beyond Bogotá

 

By Garry Leech

Beacon Press, 272 pages

Buy the book

Leech clearly knows Colombia intimately, and this makes the book. One area where “Beyond Bogotá” falls short, however, is that it lacks regional context. Colombia is just one country in a fascinating and rapidly changing region. In many ways Colombia is an outlier among its neighbors: While Colombia is still a close ally of the U.S. and an adherent to the Washington Consensus, Andean neighbors Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, for example, have elected left-wing, anti-neoliberal, populist presidents, including Hugo Chavez, Rafael Correa and Evo Morales. Uribe appears to represent the old guard of Latin American governments, while Chavez’s 1999 election was the vanguard of a wave of progressive democratic victories across the region. This regional context has shaped U.S. aid to Colombia, as well as Uribe’s domestic policies, but is largely absent from the book. Also missing are recommendations for how Colombia might find its way out of its quagmire, or how the international community can help it do so.

Latin America is a rapidly changing region, and perhaps no country illustrates this better than Colombia. Writers focusing on current events there inevitably face the pitfall that nothing remains current for long. While this book is one of the most recent, most up to date on Colombia available today, crucial developments occurred after “Beyond Bogotá” went to press. Several of the key FARC leaders Leech writes about or interviewed for this book, including Simón Trinidad, Raúl Reyes and Manuel Marulanda, are no longer on the field of battle: Trinidad was caught and extradited to the U.S., where he is currently in prison; Reyes was killed by the Colombian military; and Marulanda died of natural causes. Moreover, the FARC’s most valuable hostages, among them one-time Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and several American civilian contractors, were rescued last summer in a daring raid coordinated by the Colombian military. What implications these developments have for the FARC’s viability as a national rebel army remain to be seen. For those interested, as I am, in Leech’s ongoing analysis of these issues and future developments in Colombia, it should be noted that he is the editor of a regularly updated Web site called Colombia Journal [under construction as this review is published].

As I was finishing reading “Beyond Bogotá”, I received an e-mail from Justicia y Paz, detailing threats and kidnappings of its members working in the communities in Curvarado. A series of anonymous phone calls had preceded the kidnapping of a human rights worker based in one of the formerly displaced communities I visited in 2007. Throughout Colombia, paramilitary groups are engaged in ongoing assaults on poor communities living on resource-rich land. U.S. military aid continues unabated, even as the Colombian military is complicit with these illegal attacks or simply looks the other way. This book is an excellent way to familiarize oneself with a multifaceted conflict that sadly shows no sign of letting up soon.

Chesa Boudin is the author of “Gringo: A Coming of Age in Latin America,” forthcoming from Scribner. He studied forced migration and public policy in Latin America at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and is currently enrolled in the Yale Law School.

Ecuador: A Philosophical Analysis December 23, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Ecuador Politics, History, Government, Culture, Ecuador Writing, Ecuador: A Philosophical Analysis.
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 (My political writing, I freely admit, has a schizophrenic character.  When I am attempting to place an article in a mainstream publication, I have no choice to try to “lay it between the lines.”  My major achievement in this respect was the oped piece of mine on free trade published by the Los Angeles Times in October of 2005.  In writing to “family and friends,” I am much more free to be explicit about my political revolutionary socialism, but I tone it down there as well – don’t want to turn people off with Marxist terminology [sadly, and for reasons which are too complicated to go into here, this is the reality].  However, I often write for the Marxist-Humanist periodical, “News and Letters,” and it is here where I feel under no compulsion to censor myself.  See for yourself the difference in style and content in these various efforts.)

 

ECUADOR ANALYSIS (June 2003) for News and Letters

 

What is occurring in Ecuador today is a classic example of the fate of philosophically rudderless progressive political movements.  It is characterized by the confusion and bickering within the ranks of the governing coalition (the Patriotic Society Party, organized by Gutiérrez, and Pachakutik, the political wing of the Indigenous movement,), but, above all, by the opportunism of the Right and its capacity to exploit philosophic debility through cooptation.

 

Colonel Gutiérrez’s dramatic and decisive electoral victory of November 2002 was nothing less than an expression of massive popular discontent with the neo-Liberal status quo.  His position as a viable presidential candidate in the first place arose directly and exclusively from his support of the aborted popular coup d’etat of January 2000, that was the culmination of decades of intense political organizing within the Indigenous communities.  The uprising was in response to a government that had overseen a major banking collapse which caused the loss of capital equal to the nation’s annual GNP and that was in the process of accelerating the implementation of the IMF’s economic plan for the country.  The demands of the movement (which was lead by the Indigenous and campesino communities but included the support of labor and other progressive social organizations) included a moratorium on payment of the external debt, and end to privatization, freezing utilities costs, fundamental restructuring of the nation’s political institutions through popular assemblies, and the reclaiming of sovereignty over the military base at Manta, which is in the hands of the U.S. military.

 

Both Pachakutik, which was in formal electoral coalition with Gutiérrez, and the Marxist-Leninist backed Movement for Popular Democracy (MPD), which backed the Gutiérrez candidacy, based their support on written and signed agreements that reflected the demands of January 2000.

 

Gutiérrez’s drift to the right began immediately after his stunning victory in the first electoral round (the pundits had him coming in fourth or fifth).  As with so many progressive politicians who begin to taste real power, he felt the immediate need to “assure” the investing community that had nothing to worry about from a Gutiérrez presidency.  Many of his supporters, with the naiveté that is a product of philosophical vagueness, saw this as a necessary “tactical” maneuver.  They should not have been surprised, however, when his first act as president was to worship at the shrine of Bush and the IMF.

 

Five months into the Gutiérrez presidency, both the government and, to a degree, the Indigenous and social movements, are in a state of disarray.  There have been scandals, nepotism, corruption, ministerial resignations, and a total of thirty-one strikes and work stoppages that have included teachers, public health workers, civil servants and oil workers in the public sector, and workers in agriculture and transportation in the private sector.

 

The advancement of the neo-Liberal economic agenda and the alignment with Bush and Uribe on the Colombia question are now fixed policies.  The pathetic ideology that Gutiérrez employs to mask his treasonous adventure speaks of including all Ecuadorians in the sharing of power, again a traditional approach when so-called progressives take power (e.g., Papandreou in Greece, Mitterrand in France, the NDP in Ontario, Canada). Thus he has given the socially oriented ministries (education, health, social welfare, etc.) to the progressives and the economic ministries (finance, international trade, etc.) to the Right (the chief of whom is Mauricio Pozo, Minister of the Economy, longtime Central Bank functionary and neo-Liberalism true believer).  Guess who has all the power, influence and budget.

 

There has been some bitter sweetness to all this.  Nina Picari of Pachakutik, a prominent and respected Indigenous leader, is Secretary of State, to my knowledge the first Indigenous woman ever to hold such a position anywhere.   The sweetness is to see an Indigenous person in traditional dress, representing a nation on the international scene, where she is taking leadership on the question of human right for Indigenous peoples.  She is no Colin Powell.  The bitterness comes from the fact that she lends credibility to a corrupt government that is certain to taint her own credibility in the future and contribute to disunity within her own movement.  The same can be said of long time Indigenous leader and fighter, Luis Macas of Pachakutik, who as Minister of Agriculture is making attempts to stop the flow of communal lands to agribusiness; and Wilma Salgado, who, as head of the banking insurance entity, is taking concrete steps to bring a degree of justice to those who lost their life savings.

 

Those who integrate themselves with apparently progressive governments or popular fronts usually do so based upon the naïve believe that they can do more “good” from within than from without.  What they end up achieving is confusion and conflict within the movements they represent.  They fail to recognize that it is the masses in motion, not leaders from above, that initiate fundamental social change.  In effect, they separate themselves not only from their initial base support, but also from libratory philosophy.

 

Marx spoke to this in his scathing critique (Critique of the Gotha Program) of the unification of the two German socialist tendencies (one of which was considered to be Marxist) based upon bourgeois and reformist principles with respect to the questions of labor, nationalism and the state; Marx re-enunciated the essential themes of true liberation from the oppression of capital: “the need to uproot the state machinery, the state form, to pose an international not a national viewpoint, the vision of the nonstate to be, ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,’ and the inseparable relation of theory and organization …”[i]  The adoption of

 

programs of contradictory and incorrect principles render such tendencies which adopt them at

best irrelevant and at worst counter-revolutionary.

 

Pachakutik has recently reaffirmed its support of and participation in the Gutiérrez government. 

It is doubtful, in the light of those who have the real power within the government, that this will be

sustained much longer.  However, the longer it is, the greater the damage to popular movements.


[i] Gogol, Eugene, “The Concept of Other in Latin American Liberation: Fusing Emancipatory Philosophic Thought and Social Revolt,” (Lexington Books, 2002) p. 363.  I highly recommend this important book by the former managing editor of News and Letters.  It takes a sweeping view of the Latin American scene, and speaks to the various dead end paths taken by failed revolutionaries, from Cuba to Nicaragua to Central America, etc.

 

 

 

Ecuador: The Siege Goes On December 23, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Ecuador Politics, History, Government, Culture, Ecuador Writing, Ecuador: The Siege Goes On.
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(After Mahuad was ousted and Noboa took over, a period of stunned silence over the betrayed near-revolution ensued.  However, with the same economic policies in place, protest was sure to break out soon; and when it did, I was “on the spot” to report to family and friends.  Maybe here is a good place for me to define what is meant by neo-Liberal economic policies.  We can trace modern day neo-Liberalism back to the 1973 (Sept. 11!) U.S. (CIA) supported, Pinochet led, military coup against the democratically elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile.  Pinochet brought in Chicago Economist Milton Friedman to restructure the country’s economy.  It was what is usually and euphemistically referred to as “belt-tightening,” when a more apt metaphor, in my opinion, would be “neck strangulation.”  I compare it to that era in medicine when it was thought that cures could be achieved through blood-letting.  The major elements of neo-Liberal economics are threefold: privatization of utilities, natural resources and whatever else the government can get away with selling to the private sector; reduction in government funded social programs (health, welfare, education) and employee benefits; and the elimination of barriers to capital crossing national boundaries (i.e., free trade) with a concomitant bolstering of the barriers that prevent human beings from crossing from one border to another.  These policies are usually accompanied by bank “reforms” that usually end up in major scandals where national treasuries are looted and monetary policies that serve a similar function.

 

We are now almost exactly one year past the failed near revolution of 2000. New protests have broken out.)

 

Quito, 03 February 2001

 

Ecuadorian government tries to intimidate Indigenous groups

 

On the night of Wednesday the 31st of January, a truck full of food draws up to the gates of the

 

Salesian University in Quito. After a short discussion with two members of Congress, who press the police to let the truck pass, the captain commanding the 30 or so officers blocking the road sends the truck away from the university, and the 7,000 Indigenous men, women, and children lodged there. I only obey order he says, apparently oblivious to the historical implications of the phrase.  A European bystander asks the officer if he has ever heard of Adolph Eichmann, the second world war, or the Nazis. The captain shrugs.

 

In reality, the government strategy has more in common with the middle ages than the Nazis. There are elements of the classic siege. Cut off the water, the food supply, communications, and anything else you can think of. Starve them out. And if they do manage to get out then tear gas them until they run back inside. Fortunately a siege has its lapses, and in this case, before the police can counter, the truck finds another entrance where scores of volunteers speedily unload the cargo of hundred pound sacks of potatoes.

 

This is the almost warlike state of affairs in Quito, Ecuador, where the Indigenous movement has taken the lead in protesting the harshness of the economic measures imposed by President Noboa; measures which lead an incredible 49% of the work force to leave the country in 2000, at least temporarily, and to look for work in other parts of the world. Generally speaking, the Indigenous communities are the poorest in the country and the recent doubling of the price of cooking gas, and gasoline (which affects the price of everything else) has had a major effect on them. Not that they are alone. The urban poor who have no access to land are even worse off. The only thing saving them is the increased number of jobs available due to the huge migration under way. This is small comfort however, as unemployment rates are still high and even with a job there is no guarantee of sufficient money to cover the basic food and health needs. The latest figures from the National Statistics Institute show that an average family of four has 25% less income than it needs in order to cover its basic needs.

 

The government, on the other hand, is determined to show the native people a firm hand, by shooting them if need be, and by imprisoning their leaders. But up to now the strategy hasn’t worked. The shootings and the events in the capital have simply sharpened the resolve of the protesters. Primary roads have been closed in all the major mountain and Amazon provinces, and after a week there are no signs of slacking. Quite the opposite. The closures have now been extended to the secondary and tertiary roads. The army simply doesn’t have the capacity to manage the huge number of people involved in the closings and as Admiral Donoso, the spokesperson for the Military command admits, it’s a war of attrition. The roads are closed, the army opens them up, the native people close them again, etc, etc. It’s not difficult to understand the magnitude of the job; in only one stretch of ten kilometres for instance, one can encounter 15 barricades, always being rebuilt, re-dug, re-lit with burning tires.

 

Apart from the Chamber of Commerce of the Coastal Provinces (read: power groups from Guayaquil, the principal port) who demand even harsher measures (the “iron fist”) for those who block roads, almost everyone is calling for dialogue. The problem is that it’s not readily apparent how the two sides can talk on the principal issue of economic policy, which the government sees as its (and the IMF’s) sole reserve. While commissions have been formed to broker the talks, it seems unlikely that the native people will accept dismantling the barricades and settling for a series of talks. They’ve been taken in before (amongst others, by ex president Mahuad who never complied with his promises), and will therefore be extremely wary of abandoning the uprising without firm and controllable promises.

 

President Noboa, on the other hand, has virtually no room to move. Not applying the economic measures means not receiving the money from the IMF and other multilateral agencies (or debt swaps from the G7) that according to standard economic theory the country needs. Money which will serve to maintain, if not solvency (which is impossible) at least the fiction of solvency, thereby keeping the doors open for new credits with which to pay the old, and thus helping maintain another fiction, that of a healthy global financial system.

 

Although the government has backed off somewhat in the last few days (food and water are now entering the university) the two sides are still far apart. Given the context, the most likely outcome is that the government will keep on denying the position that it’s in, hoping that by maintaining a firm stance, or by praying to the virgin of Guadalupe, they can pull themselves out of the fire. Failing this, or a sudden about face in policy, the regime will probably collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. Its allies do not appear to be too solid. The army is apparently divided; the Air force Chief has told the president that he should negotiate. Only the navy and the police are firmly on side. How long this can continue is anyone’s guess.

 

(The Noboa government did survive to serve out the full term of ex President Mahuad.  In the 2002 presidential elections, Colonel Gutiérrez, the hero of the 2000 uprisings, came out of nowhere to soundly defeat banana magnate Alvaro Noboa.  He had formed a new political party and was supported by the Indigenous community and the traditional left.  His election raised high hopes.  We shall see if those hopes came to fruition.)

Obama’s Betrayal of Public Education? Arne Duncan and the Corporate Model of Schooling December 17, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Education.
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duncan-and-obamaPresident-elect Barack Obama with his nominee for secretary of education, Arne Duncan. (Photo: Reuters) MORE “PLUS CA CHANGE …” YOU CAN BELIEVE IN (RH)www.truthout.org 17 December 2008

 

 

 Since the 1980s, but particularly under the Bush administration, certain elements of the religious right, corporate culture and Republican right wing have argued that free public education represents either a massive fraud or a contemptuous failure. Far from a genuine call for reform, these attacks largely stem from an attempt to transform schools from a public investment to a private good, answerable not to the demands and values of a democratic society but to the imperatives of the marketplace. As the educational historian David Labaree rightly argues, public schools have been under attack in the last decade “not just because they are deemed ineffective but because they are public.”[1] Right-wing efforts to disinvest in public schools as critical sites of teaching and learning and govern them according to corporate interests is obvious in the emphasis on standardized testing, the use of top-down curricular mandates, the influx of advertising in schools, the use of profit motives to “encourage” student performance, the attack on teacher unions and modes of pedagogy that stress rote learning and memorization. For the Bush administration, testing has become the ultimate accountability measure, belying the complex mechanisms of teaching and learning.

The hidden curriculum is that testing be used as a ploy to de-skill teachers by reducing them to mere technicians, that students be similarly reduced to customers in the marketplace rather than as engaged, critical learners and that always underfunded public schools fail so that they can eventually be privatized. But there is an even darker side to the reforms initiated under the Bush administration and now used in a number of school systems throughout the country. As the logic of the market and “the crime complex”[2] frame the field of social relations in schools, students are subjected to three particularly offensive policies, defended by school authorities and politicians under the rubric of school safety. First, students are increasingly subjected to zero-tolerance policies that are used primarily to punish, repress and exclude them. Second, they are increasingly absorbed into a “crime complex” in which security staff, using harsh disciplinary practices, now displace the normative functions teachers once provided both in and outside of the classroom.[3] Third, more and more schools are breaking down the space between education and juvenile delinquency, substituting penal pedagogies for critical learning and replacing a school culture that fosters a discourse of possibility with a culture of fear and social control. Consequently, many youth of color in urban school systems, because of harsh zero-tolerance polices, are not just being suspended or expelled from school. They are being ushered into the dark precincts of juvenile detention centers, adult courts and prison. Surely, the dismantling of this corporatized and militarized model of schooling should be a top priority under the Obama administration. Unfortunately, Obama has appointed as his secretary of education someone who actually embodies this utterly punitive, anti-intellectual, corporatized and test-driven model of schooling.

    Barack Obama’s selection of Arne Duncan for secretary of education does not bode well either for the political direction of his administration nor for the future of public education. Obama’s call for change falls flat with this appointment, not only because Duncan largely defines schools within a market-based and penal model of pedagogy, but also because he does not have the slightest understanding of schools as something other than adjuncts of the corporation at best or the prison at worse. The first casualty in this scenario is a language of social and political responsibility capable of defending those vital institutions that expand the rights, public goods and services central to a meaningful democracy. This is especially true with respect to the issue of public schooling and the ensuing debate over the purpose of education, the role of teachers as critical intellectuals, the politics of the curriculum and the centrality of pedagogy as a moral and political practice.

    Duncan, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, presided over the implementation and expansion of an agenda that militarized and corporatized the third largest school system in the nation, one that is about 90 percent poor and nonwhite. Under Duncan, Chicago took the lead in creating public schools run as military academies, vastly expanded draconian student expulsions, instituted sweeping surveillance practices, advocated a growing police presence in the schools, arbitrarily shut down entire schools and fired entire school staffs. A recent report, “Education on Lockdown,” claimed that partly under Duncan’s leadership “Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has become infamous for its harsh zero tolerance policies. Although there is no verified positive impact on safety, these policies have resulted in tens of thousands of student suspensions and an exorbitant number of expulsions.”[4] Duncan’s neoliberal ideology is on full display in the various connections he has established with the ruling political and business elite in Chicago.[5] He led the Renaissance 2010 plan, which was created for Mayor Daley by the Commercial Club of Chicago – an organization representing the largest businesses in the city. The purpose of Renaissance 2010 was to increase the number of high quality schools that would be subject to new standards of accountability – a code word for legitimating more charter schools and high stakes testing in the guise of hard-nosed empiricism. Chicago’s 2010 plan targets 15 percent of the city district’s alleged underachieving schools in order to dismantle them and open 100 new experimental schools in areas slated for gentrification.

Most of the new experimental schools have eliminated the teacher union. The Commercial Club hired corporate consulting firm A.T. Kearney to write Ren2010, which called for the closing of 100 public schools and the reopening of privatized charter schools, contract schools (more charters to circumvent state limits) and “performance” schools. Kearney’s web site is unapologetic about its business-oriented notion of leadership, one that John Dewey thought should be avoided at all costs. It states, “Drawing on our program-management skills and our knowledge of best practices used across industries, we provided a private-sector perspective on how to address many of the complex issues that challenge other large urban education transformations.”[6]

    Duncan’s advocacy of the Renaissance 2010 plan alone should have immediately disqualified him for the Obama appointment. At the heart of this plan is a privatization scheme for creating a “market” in public education by urging public schools to compete against each other for scarce resources and by introducing “choice” initiatives so that parents and students will think of themselves as private consumers of educational services.[7] As a result of his support of the plan, Duncan came under attack by community organizations, parents, education scholars and students. These diverse critics have denounced it as a scheme less designed to improve the quality of schooling than as a plan for privatization, union busting and the dismantling of democratically-elected local school councils. They also describe it as part of neighborhood gentrification schemes involving the privatization of public housing projects through mixed finance developments.[8] (Tony Rezko, an Obama and Blagojevich campaign supporter, made a fortune from these developments along with many corporate investors.) Some of the dimensions of public school privatization involve Renaissance schools being run by subcontracted for-profit companies – a shift in school governance from teachers and elected community councils to appointed administrators coming disproportionately from the ranks of business. It also establishes corporate control over the selection and model of new schools, giving the business elite and their foundations increasing influence over educational policy. No wonder that Duncan had the support of David Brooks, the conservative op-ed writer for The New York Times.

    One particularly egregious example of Duncan’s vision of education can be seen in the conference he organized with the Renaissance Schools Fund. In May 2008, the Renaissance Schools Fund, the financial wing of the Renaissance 2010 plan operating under the auspices of the Commercial Club, held a symposium, “Free to Choose, Free to Succeed: The New Market in Public Education,” at the exclusive private club atop the Aon Center. The event was held largely by and for the business sector, school privatization advocates, and others already involved in Renaissance 2010, such as corporate foundations and conservative think tanks. Significantly, no education scholars were invited to participate in the proceedings, although it was heavily attended by fellows from the pro-privatization Fordham Foundation and featured speakers from various school choice organizations and the leadership of corporations. Speakers clearly assumed the audience shared their views.

    Without irony, Arne Duncan characterized the goal of Renaissance 2010 creating the new market in public education as a “movement for social justice.” He invoked corporate investment terms to describe reforms explaining that the 100 new schools would leverage influence on the other 500 schools in Chicago. Redefining schools as stock investments he said, “I am not a manager of 600 schools. I’m a portfolio manager of 600 schools and I’m trying to improve the portfolio.” He claimed that education can end poverty. He explained that having a sense of altruism is important, but that creating good workers is a prime goal of educational reform and that the business sector has to embrace public education. “We’re trying to blur the lines between the public and the private,” he said. He argued that a primary goal of educational reform is to get the private sector to play a huge role in school change in terms of both money and intellectual capital. He also attacked the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), positioning it as an obstacle to business-led reform. He also insisted that the CTU opposes charter schools (and, hence, change itself), despite the fact that the CTU runs ten such schools under Renaissance 2010. Despite the representation in the popular press of Duncan as conciliatory to the unions, his statements and those of others at the symposium belied a deep hostility to teachers unions and a desire to end them (all of the charters created under Ren2010 are deunionized). Thus, in Duncan’s attempts to close and transform low-performing schools, he not only reinvents them as entrepreneurial schools, but, in many cases, frees “them from union contracts and some state regulations.”[9] Duncan effusively praised one speaker, Michael Milkie, the founder of the Nobel Street charter schools, who openly called for the closing and reopening of every school in the district precisely to get rid of the unions. What became clear is that Duncan views Renaissance 2010 as a national blueprint for educational reform, but what is at stake in this vision is the end of schooling as a public good and a return to the discredited and tired neoliberal model of reform that conservatives love to embrace.

    In spite of the corporate rhetoric of accountability, efficiency and excellence, there is to date no evidence that the radical reforms under Duncan’s tenure as the “CEO” of Chicago Public Schools have created any significant improvement. In part, this is because the Chicago Public Schools and the Renaissance Schools Fund report data in obscurantist ways to make traditional comparisons difficult if not impossible.[10] And, in part, examples of educational claims to school improvement are being made about schools embedded in communities that suffered dislocation and removal through coordinated housing privatization and gentrification policies. For example, the city has decimated public housing in coveted real estate enclaves, dispossessing thousands of residents of their communities. Once the poor are removed, the urban cleansing provides an opportunity for Duncan to open a number of Renaissance Schools, catering to those socio-economically empowered families whose children would surely improve the city’s overall test scores. What are alleged to be school improvements under Ren2010, rest on an increase in the city’s overall test scores and other performance measures that parodies the financial shell game corporations used to inflate profit margins – and prospects for future catastrophes are as inevitable. In the end, all Duncan leaves us with is a Renaissance 2010 model of education that is celebrated as business designed “to save kids” from a failed public system. In fact, it condemns public schooling, administrators, teachers and students to a now outmoded and discredited economic model of reform that can only imagine education as a business, teachers as entrepreneurs and students as customers.[11]

    It is difficult to understand how Barack Obama can reconcile his vision of change with Duncan’s history of supporting a corporate vision for school reform and a penchant for extreme zero-tolerance polices – both of which are much closer to the retrograde policies hatched in conservative think tanks as Heritage Foundation, Cato Institution, Fordham Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, than to the values of the many millions who voted for the democratic change he promised. As is well known, these think tanks share an agenda not for strengthening public schooling, but for dismantling it and replacing it with a private market in consumable educational services. At the heart of Duncan’s vision of school reform is a corporatized model of education that cancels out the democratic impulses and practices of civil society by either devaluing or absorbing them within the logic of the market or the prison. No longer a space for relating schools to the obligations of public life, social responsibility to the demands of critical and engaged citizenship, schools in this dystopian vision legitimate an all-encompassing horizon for producing market identities, values and those privatizing and penal pedagogies that both inflate the importance of individualized competition and punish those who do not fit into its logic of pedagogical Darwinism.[12]

    In spite of what Duncan argues, the greatest threat to our children does not come from lowered standards, the absence of privatized choice schemes or the lack of rigid testing measures that offer the aura of accountability. On the contrary, it comes from a society that refuses to view children as a social investment, consigns 13 million children to live in poverty, reduces critical learning to massive testing programs, promotes policies that eliminate most crucial health and public services and defines rugged individualism through the degrading celebration of a gun culture, extreme sports and the spectacles of violence that permeate corporate controlled media industries. Students are not at risk because of the absence of market incentives in the schools. Young people are under siege in American schools because, in the absence of funding, equal opportunity and real accountability, far too many of them have increasingly become institutional breeding grounds for racism, right-wing paramilitary cultures, social intolerance and sexism.[13] We live in a society in which a culture of testing, punishment and intolerance has replaced a culture of social responsibility and compassion. Within such a climate of harsh discipline and disdain for critical teaching and learning, it is easier to subject young people to a culture of faux accountability or put them in jail rather than to provide the education, services and care they need to face problems of a complex and demanding society.[14]

 What Duncan and other neoliberal economic advocates refuse to address is what it would mean for a viable educational policy to provide reasonable support services for all students and viable alternatives for the troubled ones. The notion that children should be viewed as a crucial social resource – one that represents, for any healthy society, important ethical and political considerations about the quality of public life, the allocation of social provisions and the role of the state as a guardian of public interests – appears to be lost in a society that refuses to invest in its youth as part of a broader commitment to a fully realized democracy. As the social order becomes more privatized and militarized, we increasingly face the problem of losing a generation of young people to a system of increasing intolerance, repression and moral indifference. It is difficult to understand why Obama would appoint as secretary of education someone who believes in a market-driven model that has not only failed young people, but given the current financial crisis has been thoroughly discredited. Unless Duncan is willing to reinvent himself, the national agenda he will develop for education embodies and exacerbates these problems and, as such, it will leave a lot more kids behind than it helps.

    ——–

    [1] Cited in Alfie Kohn, “The Real Threat to American Schools,” Tikkun (March-April 2001), p. 25. For an interesting commentary on Obama and his possible pick to head the education department and the struggle over school reform, see Alfie Kohn, “Beware School ‘Reformers’,” The Nation (December 29, 2008). Online: www.thenation.com/doc/20081229/kohn/print.

    [2] This term comes form: David Garland, “The Culture of Control: Crime and Social Order in Contemporary Society” (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

    [3] For a brilliant analysis of the “governing through crime” complex, see Jonathan Simon, “Governing Through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear,” (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007).

    [4] Advancement Project in partnership with Padres and Jovenes Unidos, Southwest Youth Collaborative, “Education on Lockdown: The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track,” (New York: Children & Family Justice Center of Northwestern University School of Law, March 24, 2005), p.31. On the broader issue of the effect of racialized zero tolerance policies on public education, see Christopher G. Robbins, “Expelling Hope: The Assault on Youth and the Militarization of Schooling” (Albany: SUNY Press, 2008). See also, Henry A. Giroux, “The Abandoned Generation” (New York: Palgrave, 2004).

    [5] David Hursh and Pauline Lipman, “Chapter 8: Renaissance 2010: The Reassertion of Ruling-Class Power through Neoliberal Policies in Chicago” in David Hursh, “High-Stakes Testing and the Decline of Teaching and Learning” (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).

    [6] See: www.atkearney.com

    [7] “Creating a New Market of Public Education: The Renaissance Schools Fund 2008 Progress Report,” The Renaissance Schools Fund www.rsfchicago.org

    [8] Kenneth J. Saltman, “Chapter 3: Renaissance 2010 and No Child Left Behind Capitalizing on Disaster: Taking and Breaking Public Schools” (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2007).

    [9] Sarah Karp and Joyn Myers, “Duncan’s Track Record,” Catalyst Chicago (December 15, 2008). Online: www.catalyst-chicago.org/news/index.php?item=2514&cat=5&tr=y&auid=4336549

    [10] (See Chicago Public Schools Office of New Schools 2006/2007 Charter School Performance Report Executive Summary)

    [11] See Dorothy Shipps, “School Reform, Corporate Style: Chicago 1880-2000,” (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2006).

    [12] See, for example, Summary Report, “America’s Cradle to Prison Pipeline,” Children’s Defense Fund. Online at: www.childrensdefense.org/site/DocServer/CPP_report_2007_summary.pdf?docID=6001; also see, Elora Mukherjee, “Criminalizing the Classroom: The Over-Policing of New York City Schools,” (New York: American Civil Liberties Union and New York Civil Liberties, March 2008), pp. 1-36.

    [13] Donna Gaines, “How Schools Teach Our Kids to Hate,” Newsday (Sunday, April 25, 1999), p. B5.

    [14] As has been widely, reported, the prison industry has become big business with many states spending more on prison construction than on university construction. Jennifer Warren, “One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008,” (Washington, DC: The PEW Center on the States, 2007). Online at: www.pewcenteronthestates.org/news_room_detail.aspx?id=35912

    ——–

    Henry A. Giroux holds the Global TV Network chair in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Canada. His most recent books include: “Take Back Higher Education” (co-authored with Susan Searls Giroux, 2006), “The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex,” (2007), and “Against the Terror of Neoliberalism: Politics Beyond the Age of Greed,” (2008). His newest book, “Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability?,” will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2009.  

    Kenneth Saltman is associate professor in the department of Educational Policy Studies and Research at DePaul University in Chicago. He is the author, most recently, of “Capitalizing on Disaster: Taking and Breaking Public Schools,” (Paradigm Publishers 2007), and editor of Schooling and the Politics of Disaster (Routledge 2007).

 

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