Sunday, April 4, 2021

France: Workers and students occupy theatres to demand the reopening of the cultural sector

Protest outside the occupied Odeon Theatre

Lisbeth Latham

On March 4, workers and students within France’s cultural sector began occupying the Theatre Odeon in Paris as part of protests aimed at increasing government support for the sector in the face of the economic impact of the COVID pandemic. Since March 4 the occupations have spread and there are now over theatres across France that have been occupied. The movement is an important development within the French labour movement’s response to the current crisis and follows the central role played by workers at the Paris Opera played during the 2019-2020 movement to defend pensions.

Striking Ballerinas perform Swan Lake December 2019

Like in most countries the COVID pandemic has caused considerable disruption to the French economy. In response to the crisis, the French government has sought to support the wages of workers (albeit those workers who have had their hours reduced only have up to 60% of their incomes protected) and the capacity of companies to survive even if they were no longer able to operate - this has included making available government-backed financing. All aid to business is tied to a restriction on these companies not paying either bonuses or dividends for a period they receive the support.

At the same time as businesses have been supported, France’s cultural sector has been repeatedly ignored and abandoned by the Macron government. While workers have had access to wage subsidies museums and theatres were not initially provided with the same support as other businesses, and despite widespread planning regarding how to safely reopen in the context COVID, have been largely ignored in government planning for reopening following the end of France’s second national lockdown in December, with the exception of bookshops and small private galleries, which have been treated by the government as shops rather than cultural spaces in planning.

This abandonment of France’s cultural sector. Which has been so central to French identity for the past century. Has caused considerable anger in France not just because of the immediate and potential long term impact on the affected spaces, but also the potential weakening for French culture in face of globalising cultural imperialism emanating particularly from the US. With fears that France’s efforts to protect the French language and cultural products, which itself is part of the French imperialist project in francophone countries that remain from France and Belgium’s former colonial empires, and its cultural and economic hegemony over these neo-colonies. While this tension between the maintenance of French identity and its own cultural imperialism means that the process is not unproblematic the destruction of the French cultural sector would be a significant loss to the diversity of cultural production globally and a disaster for the workers within the French cultural sector.


The tensions within this space have been reflected in a number of protests, most notably an impromptu performance by cellist Gautier Capuçon in a supermarket to highlight the difference in restrictions operating in theatres and other spaces as compared to commercial spaces. While these differences can be justified on the basis of what constitutes an “essential service” it also demonstrates significant anger at the abandonment of the cultural sector and its workers.

On March 4 protests were held across France. In Paris, the protests culminated in the occupation of the Odeon Theatre by workers and students, particularly the General Confederation of Labour’s (CGT) cultural worker federations the Syndicat Français des Artistes Interprètes (French Performers Union - CGT-SFA), Fédération nationale des syndicats du spectacle de l'audiovisuel et de l'action culturelle (National Federation of Audiovisual and Cultural Action Unions - CGT-Spectacle) and Syndicat National des Professionnels du Théâtre et des Activités Culturelles (National Union of Theater and Cultural Activities Professionals - SYNPTAC-CGT).

On March 4 protests occurred in France calling for the reopening of Cultural Spaces. In Paris, students entered the Odeon Theatre. Since March 4, the occupation movement has spread, by March 14 occupations had spread to 30 cultural buildings across France.

Map of occupied theatres source:@occupationodeon

In response, Roselyne Bachelat, Minister of Culture, announced that the government announced that it would be making €20 million available to support the cultural sector. However, this package is totally inadequate to meet the challenges facing the sector and is dwarfed by the support provided to companies in other sectors by the government. At the same time, Bachelat has sought to delegitimise the movement, arguing that the occupations posed a physical threat to the buildings - many of which are historic sites.

The CGT-SFA has rejected these claims issuing a statement on March 17 stating:

“Madame Bachelot, we are not rambunctious children whom you can publicly lecture for what you seem to consider to be a whim on our part. We demand a minimum of respect, even though for many months we, performers, workers in the performing arts, have been considered non-essential to the life of the country. Our struggle, far from giving our jobs a bad image, on the contrary, gives us back our dignity.

 

If the actions we are taking disturb you Madame Minister, know that this is precisely the goal we are looking for, and as long as we have not obtained satisfaction with the demands that we are making, we will continue”.


Moreover, the occupations have been supported by the managements of the occupied buildings, an example being David Bobée, director of the Théâtre du Nord in Lille, who reported by Radio France Internationale on March 15, as expressing his “complete and total support to this new mobilisation” which he described and an appeal to “revive the performing arts as quickly as possible”.

The CGT-SFA, SYNPTAC-CGT, CGT-Spectacle and SUD Culture, the cultural worker federation of the Solidaires union confederation, in prosecuting their campaign to reopen cultural buildings not simply by advocating on behalf of cultural workers, but by linking this struggle with the broader efforts in France to opposed attacks by President Macron and the Castex government on the rights of all French workers.

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Friday, April 2, 2021

How the Neoliberal Thought Collective uses "feminist" language to defend misogyny

Lisbeth Latham

Other the past months federal politics has seen the airing of a series of allegations of inappropriate behaviour and outright sexual assault against Morrison government ministers and staffers. These allegations have caused understandable anger amongst wide sections of society, most particularly women - highlighted by the Marchs 4 Justice on March 14 and 15 in numerous cities and towns. In response government ministers and their supporters and defenders in the media have relied on dubious legalistic arguments based on spurious legalism and denials of misogyny. Much of the responses to these defences have tended to see these arguments as reflecting a lack of understanding of concerns and/or poor leadership on the part of Morrison. However, these interpretations tend to make the mistake of seeing the statements and arguments coming from the government and its support networks as being genuine, if ill informed or mistaken. I would argue that instead these arguments are not at all genuine, but are instead of a conscious destablisation and misinformation campaign being conducted by sections of the neoliberal thought collective within Australia to buttress and defend the government and if we are to respond effectively to the current crisis we must accept this reality that significant sections of the media are not good faith actors.

Capitalism as a system is a highly unstable system, it has a tendency toward crisis and contains within it a significant number of contradictions which further this instability. At the same time, despite predictions of inevitable limits and the possibility of collapse, it has demonstrated itself to be an remarkably resilient and flexible system that has been able to adapt to, absorb, neutralise, and eliminate potential threats. Central aspect to this resilience has been the capacity of capitalism and its supporters/beneficiaries to construct a cultural hegemony in support of the system which works to normalise and integrate, and where necessary, smash threats to the system. Within late capitalism, as neoliberalism has become the hegemonic response to capitalist crisis and contradiction this hegemony, particularly amongst ordinary people, has been increasingly been buttressed by the neoliberal thought collective(s).

The concept of a neoliberal thought collective, developed by a range of theorists of neoliberalism such as Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe, refers to the networks of neoliberal idealogues and promoters that exist within and move between academia, think tanks, and media. During the early period of neoliberal thought, when it represented a marginal approach seeking to overturn the dominant social democratic and liberal responses to capitalist crisis, served to help spread ideas and promote the legitimacy of neoliberalism as a response to capitalist response - however has it has emerged as the dominant system the NTC not only promotes neoliberal responses to crisis within its own networks and more broadly, but seeks to defend it’s system by destabilising and undermining alternative approaches - most succinctly articulated in Thatcher’s maxim “There Is No Alternative” in this way demonstrating, as Steven Lukes has suggested, that an important aspect power is the ability to limit possible policy options which are available. Central to the approach of the NTC is to deligitimise alternative perspectives and approaches by co-opting and misusing the language and ideas of its opponents, effectively neutralising by creating confusion as to what these positions actually represent and are arguing.

As mass anger at the allegations against Christian Porter and Liberal staffers - and the acts by the government to protect them rather than hold them to account has increased we have seen a new wave of defences being articulated based a superficially feminist basis - which appears as an apparent break from the attempts at rape apologism and victim initially mobilised by the government and its supporters - most notably Peter van Onselen. This is best reflected in a number of opinion pieces by fairfax columnist Parnell Palme McGuinness titled “Boomer feminism is not what we need at this transformational moment” and “Scott Morrison is not a misogynist, what lacks is a female inner circle” which follow an November 2020 piece “Please, not in the name of feminism:Expose of ministers’ private lives”. In these pieces McGuinness attempts to exploit and mobilise existing divisions within the Australian feminist movement, most notably between older second wave feminists and feminists who have emerged and been influenced by feminisms third and fourth wave.

The significance of these articles is not the actual arguments contained within them, which are dubious and disingenuous, but they way they have sought to mobilise feminist language in justifying a defence of Porter and Morrison. Whilst these articles have been widely seen as bad articles with weak arguments, in drawing responses and shifting debate onto the their spurious arguments the articles work in both shifting the debate away from what to do about an attorney general who is faces credible allegations of rape and a governmetn which defends him to the validity of McGuinness’s argument and adds to the general divisions which exist within the current movement.

It is necessary to simply reject outright any attempt to distract from the seriousness of sexual assault within our community and the failures of institutions to address this violence. At the same time it is vital that we recognise that the only way to move the movement forward and achieve real change is to support the mobilisation of survivors and their supporters with the aim of making attempts to ignore the movement and continue as normal are simply impossible.

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Sunday, February 21, 2021

Australia's Media Bargaining Laws and the political economy of digital media



Lisbeth Latham

On February 18, Facebook initiated a block of all Australian news media content being posted to the platform and blocking all Australian accounts viewing news posts globally. The blocking, which resulted in much more than media content and pages being removed from the platform, was in response to the lower house passing the Treasury Laws Amendment (News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code) Bill 2020. This legislation is aimed at requiring Facebook and Google negotiating with Australian media companies for the presence of their content within Facebook’s timelines or in Google’s search engine. This legislation has been justified on the basis that both of the tech companies are enriching themselves off the sharing of the content produced by companies like NewsCorp and Nine Entertainment, and Seven West Media and that it is this enrichment that is responsible for the parlous state of legacy media companies. However, this justification however does not reflect reality, moreover, the panic and outrage at Facebook’s response underline the real relationship between the organisations.

Globally legacy media, that is media companies that predate the emergence of digital media technology, have been experiencing significant financial difficulties calling into question their viability - and resulting in repeated waves of rationalisation of journalists, photographers, and sub-editors and a shift to an increasing reliance on freelancers in generating content.

Historically newspapers and television stations have primarily relied on providing free or subsidised content to consumers. This allowed them to build up audiences, which they sell access to in the form of advertising - it was primarily via advertising sales that they made profits.

This model was at times disrupted via things such as cable networks which relied entirely on user subscriptions for profits rather than advertising - with the absence of advertising and the exclusive availability of specialist content being the primary selling points.

With the emergence of the internet, and subsequent innovations of the mechanisms through which content could be delivered over the web this model has broken down. This has been primarily for two reasons - the growth in media dispersed audiences, particularly via old mediums such as newspapers and broadcast TV - reducing the capacity for companies to generate income via the sale of advertising - this has also been a consequence of these companies cannibalising this income themselves by establishing their own competing platforms for advertising services that were traditionally dominated particularly by print media. Secondly, legacy media has struggled with finding effective mechanisms to monetise their online presence in order to replace their historical revenue streams - this has been due to both a reduced ability to generate advertising via website visits and efforts at trying to get consumers to pay for content being uneven - given the diversity of media, particularly news available.

In this context, the Morrison government, with the support of the major Australian media corporations proposed the Media Bargaining Code. These laws: 
  • make it unlawful for digital platforms that do not pay up to provide links to Australian news;
  • give big news outlets quasi-monopoly bargaining power allow deals to be made without the need for authorisation by a regulator concerned about the public interest; 
  • provide a regulatory stop-gap should that not happen;
This has been justified on the basis that Facebook and Google generate income from this which is rightfully the media companies. Both Google and Facebook have argued that they don’t directly generate revenue from these mechanisms and that instead, their platforms help to generate income for Australian media companies by providing traffic to their sites which the companies can then seek to monetise that traffic in whatever way they want and are able to.

One of the key challenges for digital platform companies such as Facebook has how to translate their millions of users into revenue and thus profits. In the early period of Facebook’s existence, when it was seeking investment, it’s value was premised primarily on the notion that it would be able to be monetised, not that it was actually profitable at that time. Indeed Facebook, despite being founded in 2004, did not make a profit until 2008 and it was only with the initial public offering of shares in 2012 that it began to reach its full monetising efforts, which is also the point that some would say it began to decline as a particularly useful social media platform.

Facebook makes money out of a number of mechanisms - the primary source is the selling its users, all 1.69 billion of them in 2020, to other businesses - this can be in the form of selling user data or selling access to users via advertising and sponsored content - in 2019 it averaged US$8.52 in revenue per individual user. What gives Facebook power is that people use the platform, if that should decline then so would its power, however, like the legacy media, it might still have sufficient residual power to seek to either diversify or invest in those platforms that emerge to compete and challenge it. As social media emerged older media companies sought to invest to protect themselves. News Corporation bought MySpace for US$580 million in 2005 betting that it would be a dominant platform and that it would be able to be monetised, however, it was rapidly outstripped by Facebook and other platforms and is now little more than a punchline to jokes - which News Corp unloaded in 2011 for just US$35 million.

Facebook’s decision to block news posts from Australia essentially accepted the Morrison government demand that if the news was to be paid for, they would simply stop it from being shared. It was a mechanism by which it could act in the interests of its shareholders by removing the possibility of having to pay companies for the content shared on the platform - making the assumption that this would be more than any loss of income resulting from the blocking of content. Moreover, it was an effective exercise in demonstrating that Facebook needs Australian news content far less than Australian news content needs Facebook. This action caused outrage on two levels the first was that News agencies were outraged - despite Facebook having stopped the practice they were claiming it was making money from rather than paying for said practice - demonstrating that this was primarily about securing money rather than concerns about “theft of content”. The second was that Facebook’s action caught up far more than news, no matter how ill-defined that might be in the legislation, this included the Bureau of Meteorology, health agencies, and satire sites. While some of the anger at this action was legitimate and justified it was also at times overblown, with claims that Facebook was censoring - there was some merit to this with pages being Facebook pages deleted, but with the limiting of sharing - all of that content still existed and was accessible. The much broader blocks and bans - whether deliberate or the consequence of poor coding the algorithm - did not help Facebook’s PR - but needs to be addressed separately from the question of whether the Media Bargaining Code is a good idea.

Given that the claims that Facebook generates money from news companies’ content are thin what is the point of the legislation? It appears to be an attempt by the Australian government to redirect revenue from Facebook to struggling Australian legacy media with little real grounds and to the detriment of media diversity, as has been argued by a number of independent media outlets, with Crikey’s Bernard Keane describing the legislation as “an extortion racket at the behest of the Murdochs on the widely reviled big tech companies”. Joshua Gans, writing in The Conversation, argued that the Code is deliberately aimed at keeping small media organisations out and handing over money to large media corporations. So what position should we take regarding the laws and Facebook? First, it should be clear that these laws are bad and make very little sense, the justifications are at best ill-conceived and at worst demagogic. Second, while it is understandable that people want to hold Facebook, a large and powerful multinational that pays limited tax in any jurisdiction, accountable. However, this legislation does not do that however - it just gives money to other rich unaccountable companies that also don’t pay taxes in order to boost their profits. <

Facebook and all other companies should be made to pay taxes, and the loopholes which allow it and other multinationals to avoid tax by using tax havens as their headquarters should be closed. This money should be used to fund public services including journalism through the ABC, SBS, and community radio, even to commercial media but on terms to create jobs and journalism capacity rather than just a sop to corporate profits, however, I would not hold my breath on the Morrison government doing this. We also need to challenge the power of Facebook - the main way to do this is to just stop using it - that is how it generates power - if people stop using the platform it will wither away - just as the legacy media is currently.

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Thursday, February 11, 2021

Tim Wilson's war on Super


Lisbeth Latham

Tim Wilson, Liberal MP and former Institute of Public Affairs mouthpiece has deepened his campaign to undermine the superannuation system supposedly in the name of supporting homeownership amongst young workers. Reality is that his proposals are unlikely to increase the ability of people to own homes, and even if it did increase buying capacity it is likely to further inflate prices, but instead serve to drive more people into poverty in old age.

In a February 6 article by Rick Morton in The Saturday Paper, Wilson argues the following: 
  • Workers accessing superannuation during the COVID pandemic was a policy success; 
  • The decline in the number of young workers owning their own home is a consequence of the superannuation guarantee; 
  • That homeownership will provide greater security in both working life and retirement;
As a starting point, super is deeply flawed, it is not the best way of securing a comfortable retirement for all working people. However, Wilson is not looking to address the weaknesses of the current system. Instead, he is cynically trying to use justifiable angst about retirement, particularly in the context of the COVID pandemic to undermine and weaken the superannuation system, particularly for the marginalised workers.

The Morrison government’s policy of allowing workers facing hardship due to COVID to access their Superannuation balances to meet their needs signalled that the government knew that the financial support it offered people in its stimulus packages was totally inadequate to meet people’s financial obligations. Moreover, the policy allowed people to mortgage their futures to meet the living costs of today. As a consequence, they not only denuded these workers of their retirement savings but undermind the superannuation balances of millions of workers as superannuation funds were forced to liquidate assets, some at a discount, in order to meet the cash demand of people making withdrawals.

While it is true that superannuation is a deferred pay rise, that deferral long ago occurred and cannot be accounted for in declining wage growth. The Superannuation guarantee increased to 9% from July 1, 2002. It did not increase again until 1 July 2013, when it increased to 9.25%, and then to 9.5% from 1 July 2014. The Abbott government delayed the subsequent increases in the guarantee which had been legislated by the Rudd government, with the next increase not due until July 1 of this year, the guarantee is scheduled to increase by half a per cent each year until it reaches 12 per cent in 2025. In the meantime, the average wage price index has moved from 3.6% in 2004 to 3.7% in 2012 and 1.4% in 2020. This decline is more to do with the increasingly combative outlook of employers eager to maximise the share of productivity growth going to profits rather than wage rises. This more aggressive outlook has been encouraged by successive LNP governments and mirrors patterns across the OECD.

Source: Wage Price Index, ABS. 

Brendan Coates, director of Grattan’s household finance program, in the article that a 12% superannuation guarantee is more than sufficient for most workers, and thus workers should be able to draw down their super balances each year that exceed 9%. However, this does not hold up against the reality of high levels of poverty in retirement within Australia, with the OECD finding in 2019 that 25% of those over 65 in Australia living in poverty. The research found that breaks in contributions, in the study this was primarily due to periods of unemployment or parental leave, resulted in significantly worse financial outcomes. Moreover, given that superannuation is based on compounding value - but may decline due to market fluctuations, judging what counts as “in excess of 9%” would be difficult to judge.

At the same time as wage growth has slowed to record low levels, housing prices have continued to grow. From 2004 to 2020 the average home price in Australia’s eight capital cities has almost doubled, with only a couple of years where prices contracted. Given that wages have not grown anywhere to the same extent, what has been the driver behind this ongoing growth? A major factor has been the availability of historically cheap finance, which is allowing people to borrow much greater amounts compared to their incomes. The creates a real danger that any rise in interest rates could see thousands of homeowners being forced to sell or face foreclosure particularly given that a quarter of all mortgage owners report mortgage stress. In addition, the ongoing growth in house prices has encouraged a significant level of speculation in the housing market, with speculators taking on interest-only loans on the assumption that they will be able to sell the home at a profit prior to the interest rate increases. A final driver of house prices has been successive government policies around negative gearing which allows owners of investment properties to write-off the difference between interest payments and rental income against their income tax. These policies have led to numerous individuals owning multiple “investment properties” and any first home buyers competing with speculators in the marketplace and the driving up of prices but also contributed to increasing rental prices which undermine the ability of renters to save deposits towards their first home.

According to Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia, in 2017 the average superannuation balance of workers aged between 30-34 was $43, 593 for men and $33, 748 for women. In most cities, this is insufficient to make up a deposit - in August median house prices in Australian capital cities was $804, 602. Even if you assume you have a couple they would struggle to pull together a full deposit - at the same time they would then need to be able to cover a mortgage - which may or may not be possible based on their combined balances and saving, but they would potentially be left in retirement with a co-owned house (possibly still a mortgage on it) and limited savings.

Given the distance between Wilson’s proposal and the reality that accessing their super accounts will not make buying a house affordable for most workers, why is Wilson pushing this proposal? While it could simply be a public destabilisation scheme which Wilson and the IPA are fond of, it is more likely that it is to help soften up the public for the Morrison government pulling back from the legislated super guarantee increases. Either way, the media should reflect this reality rather than proposals in good faith. Moreover, if they are serious about exploring approaches to provide security in retirement they should explore solutions that don’t pose it as either a choice of owning a home or retirement savings based on a life of work. Instead, we should be looking at ensuring that everyone has sufficient incomes in retirement. Whilst super may have a role in this, we would be better served by increasing all pension payments to liveable levels. Moreover, whilst it is true that owning a home in retirement can provide security and capital - this is primarily due to the cost of rentals. Housing security would be better served by greater government investment in quality housing stock aimed at providing affordable and long-term housing to residents.

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Wednesday, February 3, 2021

The GameStop short squeeze and why any market indigestion can be very bad for working people

Lisbeth Latham

Over the last week social media and the mainstream media has been filled with stories of how Redditors may have bankrupted some hedge funds who had been attempting to short the stock of US games retail company GameStop which had been struggling during 2020 under the dual pressures of the COVID pandemic and the increasing competition from games streaming platforms for market share. Much of the commentary has been a level of schadenfreude at hedge funds being beaten at their own game, which is understandable - however in enjoying the idea that this is ordinary people bringing down mighty capitalists, it is important to understand that the potential impact of the disruption of the shorting of GameStop is potentially much broader than that event, and the impacts will potentially be felt outside the stock market, and if that happens it will be working people who pay the price.

The origin of the stock market was a mechanism for raising capital for the establishment and expansion of companies. Companies, in exchange for investment, would offer other capitalists ownership of part of the company (i.e. shares) these could then be traded on the stock market with other capitalists. Originally the main value of shares was that they entitled their owners to a share of future profits - dividends. However as capitalism expanded and the opportunity to invest in profitable expansion of production in the real economy the stock market became an avenue for the investment of excess capital for speculation, but rather than for long-term returns on company profits speculation was based on short-term returns on variation in stock value and the creation of novel financial instruments that could be traded and invested in. For decades the stock market has primarily served as an avenue for such speculation by capitalists who are able to achieve better returns via such speculation than they can via investment in the “real economy”. This reality has been exacerbated in the last year where disruptions in the real economy caused by the COVID pandemic has further disrupted the real economy and there has been more concentrated speculation in stocks seen as either safe bets - such as big tech stocks - or raiding stocks which are seen as vulnerable, as was attempted with GameStop.


GameStop had been widely seen as one of a number of legacy stocks whose business had had its day. In late 2020, the value of the shares in a number of bricks and mortar companies such as GameStop, AMC Entertainment (US cinema company), and BB Liquidation (the holding company for the liquidation of BlockBuster). A number of hedge funds predicted this rise would be short term and began to short the stock - they were not quiet about their efforts and more and more funds joined the effort, demonstrating the irrationality of the marketer as the total short position of all the hedge funds accounted for 140% of GameStop stock.

Shorting is essentially a bet, or speculation, that a financial instrument will decline in value in either immediate or medium/long term. Depending on the type of instrument you want to short you will do it in different ways. With stocks, an investor will “borrow” stocks from another owner with an agreement to return them at a later date. The investor then sells the stock, reaping the full value at their current price on the assumption that when they need to return the stocks they will be able to purchase the stock at a lower price than they sold it at - they reap the profit between the two values - if the stock instead goes higher then they will lose money on their bet.

In response members of the sub-Reddit WallStreetBets, which regularly coordinates collective short-term investment by small traders, noticed the massive short and proposed an effort to boost the share prices of these three shares using online trading platforms such as RobinHood - as doing so would not just undermine the shorts of the hedge funds but provide an opportunity to also make money as the hedge funds tried to cover their losses.

Between the close of the exchange on Wednesday, January 20 and January 27, the price of Gamestop stock had risen from US$39.12 to US$347.51. A number of the hedge funds had already covered their position by the close of trading on the January - hedge fund Melvin Capital announced they had covered their short position for a loss of US$2.75 billion while Citron Research reported it had covered the majority of their short with a 100% loss of their investment. The need for hedge funds to cover their short position and buy massive volumes of shared was a major factor in the driving up on the share prices, adding to this was other investors seeing an opportunity to make money in the process and buying shares in the hope of selling them again to the hedge funds.

The response by many to the events around GameStop has been one of joy at the pain being experienced by hedge funds. While this demonstrates understandable hostility to Wall Street and more particularly hedge funds, which are thoroughly parasitic, however, the process has a much wider impact than simply these funds losing money or potentially going bankrupt - this has the potential to spread much further through stock markets and more problematically into the real economy.

It is estimated that hedge funds have lost up to US$5 billion in their short, most companies do not have that level of liquidity, as a result in order to cover these losses they have had to sell other assets to meet their obligations - in a number of situations the shares they have gone long. Offloading large volumes of collateral at short notice can only result in driving down the value of those assets and potentially forcing others, particularly those who are heavily leveraged, to dump their position to avoid the risk of losing money themselves. For this reason, there has been a dramatic increase in the level of volatility in stock markets with the Volatility Index rising sharply. A number of tech stocks that had been massively overpriced over the past year have seen massive sell-offs. A primary driver for this has been the need of hedge funds covering their short positions selling their long positions in these stocks - but also other investors selling in response to the volatility with stocks such as Netflix dropping five per cent.

The problem with this process is not that an individual hedge fund may collapse, or that this or that firm may see it’s stock rise or fall, or that a lot of the people participating in the events of Wednesday will lose a lot of money - while others will make a fortune. Let’s be clear everyone involved was participating in a gamble to make money, no matter what their professed motivations. What we should be concerned about is that the stock market - whilst technically separated from the real economy can cause major disruptions to the real economy. An economy which is extremely fragile due to the impact of not the Pandemic but the lingering effects of the 2007-2008 global financial crisis and the ongoing accumulation crisis which was highlighted by the 1973 oil crisis. What this means is that sneezes such as that of January 27 risk a broader financial collapse, the consequence of which will not be primarily felt by billionaires but by ordinary working people who will lose jobs and see their retirement funds evaporate - just as has happened after every major stock market crash.

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Friday, January 29, 2021

On Trump’s Twitter ban



Lisbeth Latham

On January 8, Twitter announced that Trump would be permanently banned from the platform, this was followed by an announcement by Amazon that it would no longer be hosting right-wing social media platform Parler on its servers, and that Apple and Google were removing Parler from their app stores. These announcements have greeted with predictable howls of outrage from the right about freedom of speech and prompted discussions to limit the ability of Twitter and other social media companies to ban users. However, the move was also met with concern and opposition by sections of the left concerned by these bans and the potential that the same policy could be used to silence the left. Whilst the right’s statements are inspired by demagoguery, both their statements and those by left opponents fundamentally misunderstand the question of free speech as an unfettered right that trumps all other concerns. Moreover, many left’s criticisms fundamentally misunderstand the problems of corporate control under capitalism and how we should challenge this power.

Trump’s banning from Facebook and Twitter was not just a response to his comments and tweets around the insurrectionary storming of the Capitol building on January 6. It followed years of Trump using Twitter as a platform for incitement and misinformation in violation of Twitter’s terms and conditions. Moreover, there has been an ongoing debate about the proliferation of racist and misogynist material and harassment on social media platforms and their failure to properly apply their own Terms and Service about appropriate behaviour.

The emergence of the internet, social media, and digital media have been seen as making a massive contribution to the democratisation of the dissemination of information, as they offer relatively cheap mechanisms to potentially reach millions of people. At the same time, the reality is that the democratic character and opportunity to equal access to these mediums is relatively illusionary. Whilst anyone can establish a Twitter account, the ability to use Twitter, or any other social media, as a mechanism for communicating with others is not equal and it is not unmediated. From their inception, social media companies have been attempting to develop ways in which to monetise their platforms. This has primarily been achieved by the introduction of algorithms which limit organic reach encourages users to explore spending money to increase reach or attract followers. The reality is that like other mediums, social media do not provide equal platforms across society – they disproportionately favour the powerful – who are able to exploit their power and wealth to generate substantially greater reach than the average person.

Freedom of speech is one of the great achievements of the bourgeois-democratic revolutions beginning in the seventeenth century – the idea that the state should not be able to punish or persecute individuals and groups for saying things that the state objected to. Having said this, it is also a concept which is now widely abused, with people increasing suggesting any critique of speech as being a violation of this “right” – seeing freedom of speech as a right to speak without consequence or responsibility, and right that more important than all other rights including the rights of others to their own freedom speech and autonomy.

The denial of a platform is not a violation of freedom of speech, as there is no right to any given platform – if there were then the reality would be that for the majority of the world’s population it would be a right that is violated on a daily basis. Moreover to argue that to deny the right of any publication or organization to be able to withdraw a platform, on the basis that it is a violation of free speech is to reject the concepts of editorial independence, moral responsibility, and autonomy of individuals in general. Moreover, it robs the powerless of important political weapons of demanding the withdrawal and denial of platforms.

It would mean that a publishing house could not withdraw a publishing contract because of an assessment that a particular author was an anathema to their values (or more accurately a risk to their profits) such as publishing company Simon & Schuster cancelling Milo Yiannopoulos’s publishing deal. It would mean that the other Simon & Schuster contracted authors who threatened to leave the publisher were really part of denying freedom of speech – even though they were threatening their own loss of a platform. It would mean a right to the far-right to appearances on TV and Radio, something that has been a central target of left and anti-fascist mobilising for decades.

More chillingly, this argument feeds into the campaign by conservative government’s globally to criminalise boycott and divestment campaigns aimed at promoting that companies and organize withdraw commercial and financial relationships with problematic corporate actors such as the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign targeting businesses operating illegally in the Palestinian Occupied Territories; the campaign to block financing and insurance for Bravos’ massive Carmichael coal mine project in Queensland, and numerous corporate campaigns for justice that have been key tactics of a range of movements for decades.

The reality is that companies and other organisations act in their own interests. This means that there can be a confluence of interests between capital and the far-right, even “liberal-capitalism” will see its interests more in line with the aggressive right than the left, particularly when push comes to shove.

As a consequence, the left is less likely to have the same level of access to platforms, and we will face the danger of being denied platforms. There are a range of responses that we have historically taken – the first is recognising that capital will protect their interests and seeking to build our own networks of platforms. Historically this has been clearest with the establishment of left papers, magazines, and publishing houses. While the advance of digital technology has opened up new opportunities for communication, the underlying cost of starting up some aspects of platforms have also increased. It is potentially outside the means of individuals, but most likely not outside that of collectives of the left, most notably unions. In the event where the ability for the left to be hosted on the internet were to be challenged, it would be possible to explore and establish this capacity, and ideally, we would be doing this prior to such a challenge. Beyond this, as with anything, we need to be making the case in defence of the right of the left and progressive voices to speak and be heard, placing pressure and mobilising resistance to any attempt to silence us. However, this can’t be based on an agnostic view of, or even worse a defence, of the right to promote hatred and violence opposing actions by private companies to limit this type of speech.

The development of corporate power poses a massive threat to democracy globally. However, this power cannot be challenged by the left throwing itself into a defence of the far-right’s right to platform on social media or the internet or any other communication medium, or backing right-wing governmental attempts to limit democratic space to contest their policies and their protection of anti-social corporations and organisations.

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Friday, January 15, 2021

United States: On the threat of the far-right

Lisbeth Latham


On January 6 - thousands of pro-Trump militants, including members of the Proud Boys, and other white-supremacist armed groups, held protests in DC which culminated in the storming of the Capitol Building aiming to disrupting the certification of the presidential results by Congress. Similar actions occurred across the US outside of state buildings and governors’ residences. In the wake of the storming of the Capitol, there has been a wide range of reactions, this has included Trump’s sympathisers in the media seeking to shift responsibility for the attack and at the same time downplaying the importance of that attacks on the capitol. At the same time sections of the left have sought also downplay the significance of the events focusing on finding humour in the limitations of the action, the form it took, - as a mechanism both ridiculing the protests and the failures of the US state in handling them. It is important that what was attempted on the sixth is properly appreciated and that it be taken seriously by the left. Both as a stand-alone event, but also as a consequence of what it symbolises regarding the development and confidence of the fascist forces and the accommodation that they have made with the centre-right in a significant number of countries.

From the start of the confrontation at the Capitol building, sections of the right-wing media sought to downplay and shift responsibility for the actions at the capitol. Miranda Devine on Twitter attempted to argue that the protest was a consequence of the “left” supporting and normalising the “violence” of black lives matter protests - Devine, writing in the New York Post pivoted to argue that the real tragedy of January 6 was going to be felt by Republicans and Trump. Whilst as the seriousness of what was occurring became harder and harder for the right to downplay, sections of the far-right, such as Sebastion Gorka, a former Deputy Assistant to the President in the Trump Administration, shifted to an argument that in reality, it was really a false flag exercise driven by the left, most particularly Antifa. This is a gaslighting strategy, relying on the ready distribution of disinformation in the media and on social media. This is a lie that has been picked up widely on Twitter at the same time as significant numbers of registered Republicans support the events at the Capitol building.

The reality is that a significant number of participants came both intending and prepared to disrupt not just the city but the Capitol Building. That this was encouraged by Trump and other Republican leaders in the lead up to, on the day after the protest. It is also clear that these mobilisations have not stopped, and are likely to escalate in the lead up to Biden’s inauguration on January 20 and its wake.

The events of January 6, must be viewed from the broader context of the efforts by Trump and his supporters to identify ways to overturn the results of the November 3 elections and to reinstall Trump for a second term in the presidency. The right has been entirely open in this attempt to subvert the elections. This included discussions of trying to stop the certification of the elections in Congress, which had the potential to trigger a vote within Congress by state delegations, with each state getting one vote. If this was to have occurred there was a possibility that the Republicans would have potentially have had the numbers to give the presidency to Trump.

Blocking the certification of the elections has been a key focus of a number of the failed court challenges launched by Trump and his proxies. It has also been a point of public discussion as to whether VP Mike Pence had the power to do so. Also, there has been open discussion within the administration regarding Trump’s ability to invoke the “Insurrection Act” as a mechanism to mobilise the military to overturn the election results. All of these examples are attempts by Trump and his supporters seeking mechanisms to give a legal veneer to attempts to subvert the democratic process. While there was a clear intent to disrupt and intimidate the confirmation of voting, it is not clear how coherent the plan was or whether there was what could be called a plan rather than a shared intent.

It is highly unlikely that what was attempted could have been more than a disruption. Importantly it is unlikely they would have been able to maintain the disruption for much longer than was realistically possible. Even if successful, the overturning of the elections would not just have faced a judicial challenge, but may not have been accepted as legitimate by either significant sections of the state, most importantly the armed forces, or the broader community. While they were clearly trying to create a veneer of constitutionality, if it was not accepted the attempt would either have collapsed under its own weight or turned into a bloody struggle within both the state and broader society. Such a conflict would have had significant negative consequences for working communities. It would have also required the left to take a clear position against the far-right, seeking to mobilise the working class initially in defence of the state, aiming to build the confidence for independent mobilisation in defence of the working class’s interests.

The storming of the Capitol Building was only possible as a result of sections of the state deliberately undermining the capacity to respond to the known threat to Congress.

For weeks it was known that there would be a large scale mobilisation of Trump’s supporters, Most likely heavily armed, with the aim at best of disrupting and terrorising the city, if not disrupting the confirmation process itself. Much has been made of the fact that the security response to this protest was substantially smaller and less hostile than for previous protests by progressive groups, most particularly the Black Lives Matter rallies in 2020.

It is important to recognise that there are several factors playing into this. The downplaying the significance of the event, and likely size. The non-calling calling up of national guard units to support police presence at the Capitol building - this is being blamed on both the Capitol Hill Police and the Department of Defence (DoD). Who both failed to take the threat seriously and responded slowly to the unravelling events despite efforts by the Democratic Party leadership in Congress and by the Governor of Maryland to mobilise the National Guard.

However, in addition to this deliberate undermining of the capacity of the Police to protect the Capitol, there is substantial evidence of police enabling the protests in entering the building. Joshua Chaffin, Courtney Weaver, and James Politi writing in the Financial Times described the police response as “a strangely flaccid police force”. In the wake of the protests, the Capitol Hill Police chief, and the sergeants at arms for both the Senate and the House all resigned, under threats from Democratic Party Congressional leadership that they would push to remove them. Given these events, and the reports of Secret Service agents being overly close and intertwined into Trump camp. Sections of the US state will likely require heavy de-Trumpification by the Biden administration. This should be supported, both to clear out Trump’s supporters within the state and to send a message to the Republicans that there is a consequence for their actions.

Some on the left have dismissed the seriousness of the events in Washington. This dismissal has primarily based on three issues:
  • That it was a relatively small ineffective action; 
  • That the insurrectionists are clownish and ridiculous.
  • That this was a chance for the US to get a taste of their own medicine; 
While the mobilisation and incursion into the Capitol Building were relatively small, poorly organised, and ultimately failed, those are facts that we should be thankful for. It is not something to make jokes about as that risks us being complacent about the threat posed. It is also important to understand that right-wing insurrectionary movements tend to have a very different appearance to left-wing ones. As the right is more likely to find support within significant sections of capital, and because it is often the expression of frustration and anger by the petty-bourgeoisie, it is likely to also start to develop influence within the state. This may be either by direct recruitment or as a proxy for those sections of capital supporting the movement. This means, as against left-wing movements which are reliant on the social power of mass movements. Right-wing movements don’t necessarily need to have the same level of mass base, at least initially, they can simply rely on capturing sufficient amounts of the state, most notably the armed forces and police to bring society and the rest of the state to heel. However, fascism, as a mechanism of social control and repression over the working class does eventually need to take on a mass character but in doing so it also tends to become entwined with the state.

The outfits, which people have derided, speak to the development of networks of shared identities which are being developed within sections of the US far-right which tap into a range of right-wing traditions within the US and speak to and have resonance within those traditions. Most particularly within the QAnon conspiracy, the militia movement, and various other neo-nazi, proto-fascist and far-right groups. However, despite whatever we may think of their fashion choices, it doesn’t take away from the reality that there is a significant number of heavily armed right-wing groups who are developing an insurrectionary outlook and which are being engaged with and successfully mobilised by Trump and his proxies - and that is seriously dangerous for working people, particularly communities of colour, within the US.

While there may be some sense of schadenfreude regarding the events of January 6, the people who would have paid the price were not going to primarily be the US ruling class. They would be able and willing to come to an accommodation with whatever was to be installed. The people who would have paid the price would be working people, communities of colour, queer communities, people with disabilities, and women. When people think that seeing the US unravel into a dictatorship as in some way funny they are not thinking about the real targets of any mass repression of progressive forces and marginalised communities.

While some people may see the process unfolding as a weakening of the US state and think it is a good thing. It is not primarily that. At present what we are seeing is an unravelling of US ruling class hegemony and the emergence of an extreme right-wing movement, primarily within the US petty bourgeoisie. This movement is parts, at least, developing an insurrectionary outlook. The key problem here is both weaknesses of the left which is not currently in a position to act as a counterweight. The problem is that the US capitalist class is likely to become increasingly unpredictable both domestically and internationally. While this may provide some opportunities it may escalate potential threats.

It is not the role of the left to help rebuild the hegemonic power of bourgeois liberal democracy, but we should care about a shattering of democratic norms and we should be opposed to any attempts by the right to subvert democracy. This is not just a danger in the US, but across the globe where far-right populist movements have grown in strength and confidence. Moreover increasing sections of the centre-right are embracing the language and symbolism of the populist far-right, while much of this is cynical the reality is that it serves to strengthen and legitimise the far-right. Adding to this danger is the reality that sections of the police and armed forces in several countries have been penetrated. This is not just the case in the US where off duty police and armed forces personnel participated in the storming of the Capitol building. In Germany where the government has moved to disband special forces units due to the influence of the far-right. Sections of the US government are making noises about the need to clear out the US armed forces of far-right influences, on January 12, the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a memorandum to those serving in the US armed forces reminding of them to their “duty to defend the US Constitution”, but it is important that they be held to account in doing this and that this not just be limited to the armed forces but to police and sheriffs departments as well.

A central objective for progressive forces everywhere must be to build our ability and confidence to mobilise and counter mobilise to oppose the far-right threat. The left must continue the tradition of being the most consistent and ardent defenders of democracy. In the US context, this would include pushing firmly against the undemocratic features of the US constitution and electoral laws which the Republicans have sought to exploit both before and during the current electoral cycle. We must demand that the state consistently apply the law against legitimate violations that pose a threat to working people and marginalised communities. It also means being prepared to push back against overreach and attempts by the state to go further than is necessary to respond to the threat posed by the far-right, however, we must be clear that the far-right poses a serious and existential threat which must be responded to.

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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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