The fictions of finance

28 September 2011
Only in en
Index says art is first in line for censorship worldwide; openDemocracy asks whether the eurocrisis is a moral crisis; Blätter thinks the Web can still be saved; Syn og Segn seeks solutions to Internet extremism; Gegenworte has discovered the fountain of youth; Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) encounters south-Slavic cultural unity on Mount Tito; Kulturos barai celebrates Tadeusz Konwicki’s visions of homeland; and Ord&Bild talks to Steve Sem-Sandberg about writing and research.

“It is in their inconsistent response to the defence of art, more than in any other field of creative expression, that democracies most frequently show the limits of their support for the right to freedom of expression,” writes Jo Glanville in her editorial to the new issue of Index. “When it comes to sex, religion and the forces of conservatism, there can be worryingly little to separate the supposedly free society from the repressive regime.”

US: Philip Kennicott, chief art critic at the Washington Post, writes about the censorship scandal that engulfed the Smithsonian in December 2010. The museum’s decision to remove from an exhibition on gay identity a work that offended the sensibilities of a rightwing Catholic lobby, “undercut a slowly built social praxis of engagement with museums as a safe place within democracy for the discussion of complicated art and contentious ideas”. Museums’ claim to public funding for showing controversial work has been undermined, Kennicott fears.

China: “If during the course of conversation with people in China, one digs just a little, it’s possible to encounter a profound and worrying cynicism in the integrity of the Chinese state,” writes Simon Kirby, director of Chambers Fine Arts in Beijing. Ai Weiwei’s pulic personality, writes Kirby, “may well be a nuanced combination of the many faults of which his detractors accuse him. However, it has also now become clear, even to his harshest critics, that this artist has courageously maintained a highly principled position for which he is now paying a heavy price. It is my observation that many others are beginning to come round to his point of view.”

Art or vandalism? Where the Mubarak regime was once the target of political graffiti in Cairo, now it is the interim council. But when there’s little to distinguish graffiti from burning flags, Yasmine El Rashidi is in two minds about its artistic value. And Nick Sturdee meets the Russian shock-art group Voina, controversial winners of the 2010 Innovation art prize, charged with hooliganism and currently operating underground. “Russian political street art is certainly on the move, and the parliamentary and presidential elections over the next six months might well provide a good stage”.

The full table of contents of Index on Censorship 3/2011

A debate in openDemocracy on the causes of the eurocrisis throws up a broad range of positions. Roger Scruton blames the free-market’s assault on old-fashioned values, calling for a return to the “elementary moral truths of debt and obligation” – which is no endorsement of the “economic fictions” of planned economies. “High taxes on all who work hard, take risks and keep the economy going, combined with a free ride for all those from whom votes can be most easily purchased – such is the tendency of the democratic state.”

It seems to me that the moral sense emerged in human beings precisely because it has proved to be, in the long run, to their advantage. It is the thing that puts a brake on reckless behaviour, which returns the cost of mistakes to the one who makes them, and which expels cheating from the fold. It hurts to be punished, and states that act wrongly naturally try to avoid the punishment. And since they can pass on their hurt so easily to the rest of us, we turn a blind eye to their behaviour.

Tony Curzon Price agrees that both private and public sectors are culpable but disputes Scruton’s overtly moral understanding of the economy. He advocates “not to return to that older order, but […] a full transition away from it – not the half transition that has been so damaging and so unfair. […] The fictions of finance can help us make that transition. They are malleable to social ends.”

Sergio Bruno is more pragmatic still, criticizing governments for embracing ECB and IMF philosophies of austerity and “flooding” parliaments with “platitudes” about “imposing burdens upon future generations”. The implications for the future depend on the specific quality of the action, not on the way it is financed, writes Buno. “We are presently in the best possible conditions for taking off through an investment-driven cycle.”

Michael Bullen, meanwhile, points out the distinction between speculation (legal) and manipulating markets (illegal). “Are speculators responsible for the failing finances of other Eurozone states, such as Italy? No, that accolade belongs with politicians who not only built unsustainable debt burdens in the first place, but later conspired with politicians elsewhere to enable Italy and other states to enter the Eurozone without ever coming close to meeting the Maastricht Treaty requirements.”

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Rudolf Hickel, writing in Blätter, also thinks that mistakes committed in the Maastricht treaty are essentially to blame for the eurocrisis. The one-sided concentration on borrowing criterion ignored other economic factors such as export ratios or unemployment. What we are seeing now, Hickel explains, is the rudimentary correction of these massive original mistakes; however current suggestions for progressive monetary, economic and fiscal integration lack democratic legitimacy:

The decisive political-economic cornerstones of the European project must be anchored in a broad basis of discussion and with the approval of the population. The permanent establishment of a European currency reserve, for example, must be decided by the national parliaments. This would give democratic basis to the relinquishing of national sovereignty in return for a liability and transfer union. If, on the other hand, there is no broad democratic consent from the member-states, then the European Union, together with the euro, doesn’t have a chance.

Back to the roots: Evgeny Morozov recounts the history of the Internet, partially blaming idealistic early visionaries for the over-commercialization of the Web today. In their nerdy naivity, they “never transferred their expectations of a commonly used cyber space into a catalogue of concrete principles for the regulation of the Web”. But the Internet can still be saved, writes Morozov: privacy has not been abolished completely and online business can still be controlled through regulatory mechanisms:

In order for this to happen we must stop seeing the Internet primarily as a marketplace and only secondarily as a public forum. A fundamental re-evaluation is long overdue: an examination of the primacy of the civic and aesthetic dimensions of the Internet. In other words, it’s time to decide whether the Internet ought to look like a supermarket, or whether it will become a place where democratic accountability prevails.

The full table of contents of Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik 9/2011

Have Norwegians been naive? asks Bente Riise in the editorial of Syn og Segn. “We have certainly been too exclusively concerned with the terror threat from extreme Islamists and not taken rightwing extremism seriously enough. […] We don’t mind stricter security in and around the government district and bomb-proof glass in all windows, but we don’t want armed police or soldiers on guard in the centre of Oslo. We want a free and open society and have to do even more than in the past to secure this for the future.”

When terrorism came to Norway on 22 July 2011, it came from a man who had likely been radicalized via the Internet, writes Øyvind Strømmen. The focus on Internet radicalization has, however, largely been on Islamism. But researchers Tim Stevens and Peter Neumann have found that websites such as Al Ekhlaas and Al Hesbah are “easily outnumbered in popularity by white racist sites such as Stormfront”. “Strikingly, Stormfront is one of the websites visited by the terrorist Anders Behring Breivik and where he also left comments,” reports Strømmen.

The Internet creates new social milieus where opinions and behaviour normally seen as unacceptable are normalized. Extremists can be with others who share their views, and as a result one gets a virtual ‘echo-chamber’ where their most extreme ideas and suggestions are supported and encouraged. […] Many of these debates have become so extreme that serious debaters have simply withdrawn.

So what’s the answer? Strømmen again refers to Stevens and Neumann, who have identified four areas of action: making the Internet less accepting of extremist material; strengthening self-regulation within social networks; reducing the appeal of extremist websites; and promoting positive messages as alternatives. We can’t afford to have more young people getting caught in the web of the extremists, he concludes.

The full table of contents of Syn og Segn 3/2011

There needs to be a fundamental re-shaping of our societies’ treatment of the elderly, says Jürgen Kocka in an issue of Gegenworte (Germany) on “Ageing (in) the sciences”. We have gained 33 years of life in the twentieth century alone; for the sake of elderly people themselves as much as for intergenerational justice, it’s necessary to increase their participation in employment, Kocka writes. Yet because professions and professional requirements vary greatly – a construction worker will not be able to extend his career as long as an historian – it is all the more important that

there exists not merely an alternative between employment and retirement, between the market and the state, but also something in between, something frequently called social engagement [that] has its own logic, namely the logic of free will, of self-organization, voluntariness and responsible engagement for more general things. Civil social alternatives […] to market-based employment and state-sponsored old-age retirement seem to me to be suited, on one hand, to helping to solve social problems and, on the other, to giving the ‘third age’ additional meaning and additional integration.

Image and reputation: Eva Birkenstock traces images of ageing and old age through the centuries and reaches a general conclusion: “Under conditions of economic scarcity and social corrosion […] the elderly and the sick are the first to be neglected.”

What does this mean for Europe in the twenty-first century? “The image and reputation of old people in the era of mobility and flexibility do not correspond to their numeric representation in society, nor to their economic power. There is barely any orientation, little status, and fewer resources in the future for the fastest growing demographic group.”

The fountain of youth? Editor Wolfert von Rahden finds a striking argument in favour of constant academic activity: it seems to have a significant life-prolonging effect. The life expectancy of male members of the Austrian Academy of Sciences is approximately six times longer than the average educated Austrian, he writes.

The full table of contents of Gegenworte 25 (2011)

The cultural connection between the former Yugoslavian states was never broken, writes Jean-Arnault Dérens in Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo). Two decades after the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the nostalgia for the unity state is blooming, and from Slovenia to Macedonia “comrade Tito” is celebrated and remembered. His place of birth, Kumrovec in Croatia, has become a favourite travel destination and in spite of the differences and the war in the ’90s, the new republics share an idealized view of the former communist state.

The “Yugosphere”, the term coined by the British journalist Tim Judah to express the reestablishment of economic, political and cultural ties between the different republics, is well established and nearly normalized. Each year, thousands join in a hike to Mount Tito, insisting that it is not a political rally and that they just enjoy meeting up with people from the other republics. There are no language barriers to speak of and in the mountains they have created a south-Slavic cultural unity far away from any political claims:

Serbo-Croat or Croat-Serbian no longer exists, it has been replaced by Croatian, Bosnian, Montenegrin and Serbian, all depending on the name used in the different republics. But most linguists agree that it is really one and the same language, in spite of regional differences between pronunciation and vocabulary. So when someone today claims to speak and write ‘Serbo-Croat’, it is a political statement. The users have learned to use different expressions, such as ‘our language’ or ‘our mother tongue’.

Also: From Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) 8/2011 we bring Jonas Balsarticle on how culture warriors like Anders Behring Breivik style themselves as victims of an all-consuming political correctness administered by the “European elite”. Norway’s centre-right must confront its own role in the rise of this type of rhetoric, writes Bals.

The full table of contents of Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) 9/2011

The Lithuanian-born Polish writer and filmmaker Tadeusz Konwicki, who is 85 this year, is regarded as one of the best Polish language novelists of the second half of the last century. Yet his opposition to the communist regime meant that until 1990 his books were published only in samizdat or abroad. In Kulturos barai (Lithuania), Algis Kaleda celebrates Konwicki’s portrayals of his childhood home:

They are marked by his love and respect [which] lend the pictures he draws certain shades of sacredness. Uniting fantastic feelings with mimetic topographic images, the writer models a reality full of various meanings, personal emotional correspondences and archetypal mythologemes, which allow him to overcome both distance and time. This is a personalized image of his homeland and youth turned into a myth.

Manhood: Patriarchal power, with its secrets, mythologies and traditions, astonishes, frightens and attracts, writes Rita Repsiene. However, the “stronger sex” has always had another, weak and emotional side. Drawing on classic and contemporary Lithuanian literary representations of crying men, Repsiene writes: “Since the Enlightenment, the syndrome of male suffering has associations not only with introvert illusions but also a loss of essential values.”

In translation: The Internet has abolished loneliness, or rather got rid of its negative effects, writes Aleida Assmann: borders between sociability and loneliness are shifting and the pressure of social conformity lessens as computer nerds turn into savvy heroes. And Boaventura de Sousa Santos argues that universities can regain their legitimacy only through radical democratic restructuring. Countering the brain-drain – so far the main result of the transnationalization of education – will only be possible by embarking on a counter-hegemonic process of educational globalization.

The full table of contents of Kulturos barai 9/2011

In an issue of Ord&Bild on creativity in art and literature, Swedish authors Steve Sem-Sandberg, Sara Stridsberg and Anne-Marie Ljungberg discuss the principles and practices surrounding the writing process.

Sem-Sandberg’s novel about the Jewish ghetto in Lodz, The Emperor of Lies, has been well-received not only in Sweden, with French, British and US critics comparing it to Dickens’ Great Expectations and David Copperfield. Like many of Sem-Sandberg’s novels, The Emperor of Lies is based on historical events and documents, but to call it “docufiction” is misleading, he says. Writing is “an intuitive, probing process” that requires much more than just a talent for archival studies.

I don’t think that I spend more time on research than most other writers. The fact-based material in my books is rather part of the texts’ appearance than something that is crucial for the interpretation of the actual content. It’s part of what makes the text physical, present and tangible, also aesthetically; but the novels are not about the historical facts.

What interests Sem-Sandberg is something else: “What is it in the actions of a person, in the choices he makes for example, that arises from an inner compulsion to act, that is, to put it differently, the result of his own condition, and what is merely history working in him? The compulsion of biography or historical necessity? Would someone else than Rumkowski, the Jewish elder and ‘chairman’ of the ghetto in Lodz, have acted differently had they been in the same situation? Or is it rather the situation that dictates the unique actions of the individual?”

(Don’t miss Steve Sem-Sandberg’s Eurozine essay in which he questions the many dos and – above all – don’ts surrounding literature about the Holocaust.)

Also: Andreas Vermehren Holm talks to French writer Leslie Kaplan about language and responsibility (“I think language is dialogue”); Stefan Jonsson describes how photography changed the “forms of the power struggle” in interwar Europe; and Johan Öberg writes a letter from the Venice Biennale.

The full table of contents of Ord&Bild 3/2011

Published 28 September 2011

Original in English
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© Eurozine


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