Vinoth Ramachandra

Archive for December 2010

Christmas is here once again. The season for forced jollity at office parties and, of course, the end-of-the-year bank bonuses. Ninety billion dollars has been stashed away by five American banking giants for their prize employees. The big PR problem the bankers face, whether in the US or UK,  is how to transfer this wealth to their tax havens without attracting the outrage of millions of people struggling with unemployment, foreclosures and shrinking social benefits.

The media, with few exceptions, looks the other way. The global frenzy over the Wikileaks affair has distracted us from the more important revelations slowly leaking out of the US Federal Reserve. While I find the official hysteria over Julian Assange quite ridiculous, I don’t think American citizens, let alone the rest of the world, have any automatic “right” of access to American diplomatic cables. In any case, unlike earlier leaks about war crimes in Afghanistan, the new “revelations” have been either low-level gossip or common knowledge. But what should be of concern to all of us is the way governments that proclaim “free markets” and call on citizens to accept “austerity for the good of the country” are hand-in-glove with powerful banking and corporate interests.

Three weeks ago, the US Federal Reserve posted on a public website details of 21,000 transactions from December 2007 through July 2010. The Fed provided roughly $3.3 trillion in liquidity and more than $9 trillion in short-term, low-interest loans not only to giant banks such as Bank of America, Citicorp, Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase, but also to companies such as General Electric, Caterpillar and Harley-Davidson. In addition, there were numerous transfers to foreign financial institutions such as Deutsche Bank and Credit Suisse which were implicated in the housing mortgage crisis of 2008.

The details show that the $700 billion Treasury Department bank bailout out signed into law under President George W. Bush in 2008 was only an initial down payment on a secretive “backdoor bailout” of big banks and corporations. This is the phrase used by Senator Bernard Sanders who wrote the measure that forced the disclosures under the financial services reform legislation passed this year by the U.S Congress.  Sanders and his allies forced the release of secret Fed files and persuaded the Government Accountability Office to conduct a top-to-bottom audit of the Fed. [The Fed information can be found at http://www.federalreserve.gov by clicking on “Usage of Federal Reserve Credit and Liquidity Facilities.”]

The Clinton and Bush administrations were well-stocked with former senior bankers from Goldman Sachs. Hank Paulson, the Treasury Secretary who engineered the 2008 bank bailout was himself a former chairman of the bank; so, unsurprisingly, Goldman Sachs was one of the first banks to benefit from the near-pandemonium and scaremongering that the US Treasury initiated to get the deal passed by both houses of Congress. Remember the talk at the time of “putting the military on the streets” and the imminent “collapse of the global economy”?

At the height of the “financial crisis” Philip Stevens, one of the Financial Times’s leading columnists, advocated shooting the bankers. Alongside the bankers he should have lined up a lot of other people – academic economists, politicians, journalists- who encouraged them and sanctioned their antics over the last two decades. And we must not forget thousands of stockholders who couldn’t care less what the banks were doing with their money, and who was bearing the costs of their reckless speculations, as long as their own dividends kept flowing in regularly. Moreover, many of the risks to which financial institutions became exposed bore little or no connection to their basic economic function of providing capital to either needy individuals or businesses.

I have often pointed out that the rich live on the backs of the poor. The net financial flows, within both local economies and the global system, are from the poor to the rich. In Sri Lanka, where I live, the backbone of the economy comprises small farmers, tea plantation workers, textile factory workers, and migrant workers who remit foreign exchange back to the country. A disproportionate number of these are women. The nouveau riche use this foreign exchange to send their children to international schools and foreign universities. In the recent budget, the ruling regime had nothing for the poor except the usual empty promises of “ development”. Taxes for the rich were cut, foreign capital restrictions eased, and members of parliament were given permits to import luxury vehicles. Education and healthcare are starved of funding, resulting in hundreds of rural schools being forced to shut down and state-run hospitals (the only medical services accessible to the poor) regularly run out of basic drugs.

In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith (yes, Adam Smith!) warned that any proposal for new laws or regulations in commerce which came from the business community should always be looked at sceptically: “It comes from an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.”

Bernard Madoff, 72, is serving 150 years in prison because he defrauded rich people. Multiple murderers get far lighter sentences. Those who plunder the wealth of nations, let alone take the lives of the poor, are rarely brought to justice. The moral outrage of the rich is a wonder to behold.

Not only outer space, but our inner spaces too, are being militarized. On the first day of its launch last month, the computer game Call of Duty: Black Ops sold 3.6 million copies and fetched more than $360 million- in the U.S, Canada and Britain alone. These games encapsulate the twin obsessions of late modernity: technical wizardry and death. It is an irony noted by many cultural observers that, as longevity increases in Western societies and actual encounters with dead bodies and rituals of death become rarer in the lives of children and youth, the fascination with suicide and violent death increases. Acts of suicide, and even public executions, are filmed and posted on the Internet. Violence dominates movies and the media.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault, who became a cult figure for many in the 1980s, insisted that “One should work on one’s suicide throughout one’s life.” Like most French intellectuals, Foucault generated a mountain of words. The reader has to tunnel through a pile of dense, obscure and luxuriant prose to find a gem of genuine insight. Unlike most French intellectuals, however, Foucault seemed to practise what he wrote. He openly spoke of his obsession with pain and death, as well as the “desexualization of pleasure” by putting our bodies and body parts to new uses. He found irresistible the sado-masochistic techniques of eroticism practiced in the gay bathhouses of San Francisco which he frequently visited. Immersing himself in  the city’s S/M subculture was part of his quest for “limit-experiences”, to traverse the frontiers between reason and unreason, pain and pleasure, life and death. He tragically contracted AIDS and died in 1984, but saw this too as another “limit-experience.”

Advocates and defenders of consensual S/M claim that much of the cruelty and violence is simulated, that the majority of those who indulge in such activities are harmless men and women. That may well be so. But the rest of us still wonder why violence, simulated or real, is so closely connected with pleasure. To say that such acts express a perversion of desire is to use language that is unfashionable in certain academic-media circles (although, curiously, it is still accepted in condemning rape and paedophilia- two acts which Foucault, interestingly, wanted to “liberate” from criminal sanctions).

The theologian Walter Wink famously coined the phrase “the myth of redemptive violence”, describing the pervasive modern fantasy that violence could bring about a new world freed of tyranny and injustice. It trades on the depiction of the enemy as the “evil other”, usually reduced to a subhuman status. Indeed, in many contemporary contexts, people are habituated into hating their enemies and desiring vengeance. Most of the popular movies we see, whether from Hollywood, Mumbai or Taiwan, are celebrations of the hero taking vengeance on those who have harmed his family or friends. On the way numerous others are “wasted”- and computer simulation and special effects have made it possible to multiply the scales of death and destruction to new heights of incredulity. Killing is great fun.

For those of us who live in societies brutalized by decades of actual violence, the preoccupation with celluloid violence (whether in North America or South Asia, it makes no difference) is bemusing. The British novelist Linda Grant observed a few years ago: “Half the population of the world is running away from violence into refugee camps and the other half is paying good money to watch it at the multiplex. We have managed to separate the real from the imaginary into such watertight compartments that we can laugh at heads being blown off  at the cinema while requiring trauma counselling if we arrive home to find we have been burgled.”

The myth of “redemptive violence” has been exposed time and again in the last century. In recent years, the invasion of Iraq and the continuing war in Afghanistan, not to mention the bloodbaths in places like Kashmir and Sri Lanka, have only entrenched hatreds and brutalized politics. I am no pacifist. My adherence to what is (misleadingly) called the Just War Tradition is spelled out in the first chapter of my book Subverting Global Myths (IVP/SPCK, 2008). Neither the invasion of Iraq nor the war on the Taliban met the criteria for a justifiable war. Not surprisingly, al-Qaeda seems to have mutated from a disciplined, well-funded organization to a ragtag collection of anarchic groups, attracting any alienated Muslim youth and motivated less by an ideology than a lust for revenge and the same romantic image of violence that non-Muslim Western youth toy with. This kind of terrorism is far harder to deal with than prior to  9/11.

In a culture gripped by fear of all kinds- from foiled bomb plots to rising unemployment and failing politics- is the manufacture and consumption of simulated violence merely escapism? Or, as I suggested in my post “Hi-Tech Terror” (31 July 2009), has the boundary between simulated and real violence become blurred in the new forms of warfare that have taken the killing out of the hands of professional soldiers and given them to computer geeks?


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