About Revolts Now

Posted: August 30, 2010 in Uncategorized

This blog was created as an outlet for some of my written work. I have also used it to record a few of my other activities. Hopefully people will find it interesting or useful. I was going to call it – democracy, peace and love – because that’s what I’m most interested in. However, I decided on revolts now in memory of my first zine, revolt now, produced during my high school years. At that time I thought of revolution as an event, but now I think of it as a historical process, a long series of varied events in the past, present and future. The name revolt now had already been taken but revolts now was available. So here it is.

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Steven Means, Malcolm Jenkins, Ron Brooks

For the past year, the American nightmare has captivated and traumatised us. We find ourselves horrified by what we’ve witnessed, yet are too fearful to look away. Those familiar with this blog will know I have previously posted on advertising during the American Super Bowl in order to explore capital’s attempts to colonise our caring relationships and our loving resistance. This year, despite seeking to avoid the difficulties of commenting on the current divided states of America, as the days passed and various controversies erupted over Super Bowl 2018, I couldn’t help delving back into the heart and soul of the U.S.A..

Previous readers of Revolts Now may have sadly noticed that advertising is now being imposed on this blog, because I don’t pay for the premium ‘no advertising’ version of WordPress. If you have the money you can avoid some advertising, or, of course, you can buy advertising. The spots available during the Super Bowl are by far the most expensive air time on television. In 2014, thirty seconds of advertising during the game cost four million dollars. In 2015, the cost was around five million dollars. This year the average cost was more than that. Advertisers spent a combined $534 million on ads before, during, and after the game last year. This year they spent well over half a billion. Most advertisers budget millions more to preview their Super Bowl spots on YouTube and to promote them on social media.

As I’ve pointed out before, many commodities are marketed as a way of giving or gaining love, or of showing that we care. The purchase of some product, we are told, will make us loved or demonstrate our love for others. Kevin Roberts, CEO of leading global advertising company Saatchi and Saatchi, argues that “the social fabric is spread more thinly than ever. People are looking for new, emotional connections. They are looking for what they can love”. He understands that “love is about action” and this means the corporations he works for require “meaningful” relationships that they foster by embracing consumers and communities and by “inspiring love”. This corporate strategy hopes to cultivate a close emotional connection between consumers and brands. Roberts and the companies that employ him believe that if consumers can be convinced that corporations are interested in love, and that corporations care about them, they will reciprocate and love corporations and their products.

Disaster Corporatism – We’re All in this Together

With much of the divided states of America now gripped by fear, with the fostering of hatred, bigotry and the ‘crisis of compassion’ normalised, and in the face of intensified struggles between progressive movements and radical right forces, countering the tendency towards polarisation was high on the agenda of those seeking to ‘depoliticise’ this year’s Super Bowl. One attempt during the game’s adverts, to straddle growing national fault lines, was Budweiser’s ‘Stand By You’ commercial. Set to the song “Stand by Me,” the ad focused on the company’s delivery of cans of water to people affected by recent disasters in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and California.

Responses to disaster can foster and promote ideas that ‘we’re all in this together’, and with recent catastrophes in the U.S. clearly demonstrating the callous disregard and inadequacy of various state forms, ‘disaster philanthropy’ is becoming more popular. As I’ve highlighted in a number of other posts, when tragedies befall people, the common scenario involves their friends, family, neighbours, and communities stepping in to care for them. This ‘disaster communism’ is an area of interest for those seeking to harness the power of love in order to make a buck. Corporations promoting themselves as supporting family and community ties, who are apparently socially concerned, or social justice-oriented, seek to reconfigure purchasing as a communal act, positioning consumer choice as a site of responsibility, where states promote ‘self-reliance’ and corporations seek to portray themselves as interested in, and committed to, solidarity, love, and care.

However, viewers remain sceptical of such corporate positioning, with many asking why Budweiser didn’t simply donate the cost of the commercial to disaster relief? The company declined to say how much their ‘relief program’ was worth, while social media debates about the ad centred on the price tag, and the amount it cost to provide around 2 million cans of water. The beer conglomerate which owns Budweiser aired six commercials during Super Bowl 2018, for a total of four minutes of ads worth tens of millions of dollars.

The ad has been viewed more than twenty million times on YouTube alone, and has garnered interest for using its own brewery workers rather than actors. Here we discover that these ads are not only aimed at consumers but, perhaps more importantly, at the corporation’s workforce.

According to Forbes American business magazine, ‘Stand by You’ “tugs at the heartstrings because actual employees are at its heart . . . reminding leaders that employees feel good about working at brands that do good.” According to Forbes; “The ads represent months of research, hundreds of hours of planning by marketing teams, dozens of scripts, and 14-hour days of filming. Budweiser has done its research, discovering that real stories of actual employees create stronger brand loyalty and employee engagement . . . (the) Budweiser ad for Super Bowl 2018 is an extension of a brand campaign that leverages the power of storytelling to make an emotional connection with its customers and its employees.”

“In the knowledge economy, the workplace relies heavily on trust, engagement, and goodwill,” writes Duke University behavioural economist, Dan Ariely, in his book Payoff. The importance of making everyone feel “deeply connected to the enterprise” is fundamental to building that relationship, he says. Ariely argues that leaders who infuse their companies with purpose and meaning see a remarkable boost in work quality, morale, productivity, and profits. Meanwhile, the editors of the Australian Institute of Management publication, Love @ Work, propose “serious conversations about love and humanity” to galvanise management and workers by encouraging them “to love their work, love their co-workers and love themselves”. Management experts discuss love as “a leadership tool” which can “strengthen the corporate heart, build profits and create social good”, highlighting the importance of workers’ growing “love affair with their jobs”, and how bosses can “seduce their employees to give their hearts and minds to the office”.

“A Heart full of Grace. . . Soul Generated by Love”

Continuing the theme of companies, people, and products, serving a corporatised America, and in a year when racial politics have been at the heart of so many social struggles, Martin Luther King Jr.’s ideas on community service rang out on televisions across America during Super Bowl LII — in an ad to sell pickup trucks.

The speech used in this Ram ‘Built to Serve’ advertisement was made 50 years ago to the day of the Super Bowl, near the end of King’s life, when he was focused more clearly on the need to confront militarism and capitalism. Although you wouldn’t know it from the Ram ad, his ‘Drum Major Instinct’ sermon was, in part, an examination of the power of advertising. Decrying the ‘instinct’ to put yourself ahead of other people, to ‘lead the parade’, King’s message urges us to recognise this ‘instinct’, harness it for the power of good, to let go of materialism, and our need to feel superior  to others. That King’s words were used in an advertisement for pickup trucks, during an orgy of capitalist self-promotion, marking the end of an NFL season in which racial protest was a key element, is yet another ironic cherry on the top of a year of mind-boggling shit.

Despite his faults and failings, Martin Luther King sought to serve the oppressed. While doing so, he described the campaigns for civil rights as a powerful form of love, “the tough and resolute love that refused bitterness and hatred but stood firmly against every shred of injustice.” Joining a widespread outcry over the use of his words in the ‘Built to Serve’ advertisement, and responding to this monstrous mocking of a man, and a vision, many consider part of the true soul of America, a recut version of the Ram commercial quickly deployed other sections of the ‘Drum Major Instinct’ sermon to deliver an alternative message.

Depoliticise This!

While attempts to ‘depoliticise’ this year’s Super Bowl were always going to fail, little media coverage was given to those protesting throughout the venue city of Minneapolis, against the militarisation and hyper-commercialism of the Super Bowl, which included brave people blocking the light rail to the stadium, because on ‘game day’ it was ‘public transportation’ reserved only for those with Super Bowl tickets. However, soon after the game ended, wide-ranging political debates erupted over white privilege and the minimal policing of the ‘riotous’ winning team’s celebrating supporters.

Media attention was also soon focused on the refusal of key Philadelphia Eagles players to visit the White House as the winners traditionally do. Eagle’s wide receiver Torrey Smith, who raised his fist on the field to express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, expressed his disapproval of Trump’s war against players who take a knee during the national anthem to protest racism. Smith told the media; “You see Donald Trump tweet something … We have those conversations in the locker room, just like everyone else does in the workplace. We’re very informed about what goes on, and we’re trying to continue to educate ourselves.” Eagles defensive end Chris Long, who skipped the White House visit  in 2017 when he played for last year’s champions, also won’t be attending. Eagle’s safety Malcolm Jenkins, who raised his fist during the National Anthem with Smith, has also been an outspoken critic of Trump, and is a founder of the Players Coalition a group of NFL players committed to fighting racial injustice. Asked after their Super Bowl win if he had something to say to Trump, Jenkins replied; “I don’t have a message for the president. My message has been clear all year. I’m about creating positive change in the communities that I come from.”

Clearly there is no depoliticisation of sport, of media coverage, of advertising, of life, of solidarity, of care, and of love. Jenkins appreciates the power of his teammate’s message and the ability of sports/media stars to raise awareness of social injustice and advertise political alternatives. As he explains; “I didn’t realise that the platform could be this big until Colin Kaepernick first took a knee,” referring to the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who helped to spark a wave of player activism. “When he did that, that was kind of an ‘aha’ moment for me. I’d already been doing work in the community . . . But when it comes to how to actually amplify your voice, when I saw what Colin Kaepernick did and the amount of coverage and conversation around it, that’s when I truly realised how much influence we have as athletes.”

Jenkins discovered he had locker-room allies in Smith, Long, and other NFL players, as well as strong support from many fans and admirers. Together their stand is a small part of the diverse responses to a variety of American disasters, and just one contribution to the wide-ranging fightback against the politics of hate. These struggles reflect a growing understanding that powerful manipulators and ideologues are pitting people against each other, dividing a class of working people whose genuine needs and desires cannot be met by capitalism. While corporate bosses tout the illusion of a united workforce ‘making America great again’ by boosting profits, genuine solidarity, care, and love are increasingly recognised as the crucial concerns of our daily struggles.

If you see an ad at the end of this post, what is it really selling? Will you buy it? When our hearts and minds are being continually targeted, who do we stand by? Who do we serve? What should we put our hearts and souls into?

Nick Southall

xmas-rock-copy 

‘Look to the Future Now’ is a deceptive title for a post which mostly gives voice to echoes of the past. Those who have read my previous posts will know that I’m interested in what is commonly known as the ‘affective turn’ – especially the importance and power of love. Nostalgia is another form of affect that has grabbed my attention, especially as I’ve gotten older. Having grown-up in England, my childhood memories of the festive season are mostly a series of sentimental Christmas clichés involving snow, ice, carol singers, sledding, church choirs, gift giving, and romanticised family gatherings. Last December, I published a post titled Loving Christmas and concluded by asking; “what would Christmas be without a special song about hope, peace and love?” So this year, inspired by various ‘people’s histories of pop music’, I’m writing about some of the special tunes, especially popular Christmas songs, which have affected me in various ways over the years.

Elsewhere I’ve celebrated the impact of musical cinema, such as the movie Oliver and artists like folk singer Pete Seeger, on my early political education. Throughout the 1960s, I was introduced to the music of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements, and the proliferation of politicised love and peace songs. The first pop Christmas track I remember well was released by John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and the Plastic Ono Band. Happy Xmas (War is Over) debuted in the lead-up to Christmas 1972, reached number four in the UK charts, and has since become a Christmas standard. As the campaign to end the war in Vietnam reached its conclusion, this record was a culmination of John and Yoko’s anti-Vietnam war activism, a more general cry for peace, and an attempt to convey optimism while avoiding the sentimentality that often characterises Christmas music. For a child whose experiences of the past decade had revolved around opposition to the war (I learned to walk delivering anti-war leaflets on council estates in Sheffield with my parents, was regularly traumatised by the war’s atrocity images, awestruck by the huge protests we participated in, and shocked by the police violence in response to them) for me the song struck both an upbeat and downbeat chord, as a pre-emptive celebration of a peaceful future we could hopefully look forward to.

Teenage Rampage

The music of the 1960s continues to be an important influence on me; however it wasn’t until the early 1970s that music became a major part of my persona. Becoming an adolescent during a time of unisex androgynous fashion, and with a family background of rebelliousness, it’s perhaps no surprise that my ‘teeny bop’ years were snared by glam rock band The Sweet.  Hearing them first on BBC’s Top of the Pops, the band attracted me with their performances of youth revolt, gender bending, and a series of chart topping hooky tunes. Emerging from the sixties under the influence of a feminist mother and a patriarchal father, I was gleefully ready to join a widespread cultural mutiny against gender norms and stereotypes, embracing ambiguity as much as my parents and school would let me get away with. I rushed out to buy The Sweet’s first single Blockbuster as soon as I heard it and was totally smitten when their next tune, Teenage Rampage, was released in 1974. Described in a recent history of Glam Rock  as “pure celebration” and “one of the hardest-rocking pop anthems ever made” the song “imagines the kids rising up, taking complete command, writing constitutions and starting revolutions.”

Heavy Metal

My family’s English roots are located in the capital of the Midlands, Birmingham, and near-by Walsall, a deprived working class town in the heart of the ‘Black Country’, so called because of the effects of industrial pollution. It was here my maternal grandad Ron introduced me to heavy metal music, during its birth as a global subculture. Having been traumatised in combat during World War Two, Ron would often escape into the world of records he’d discovered at Walsall Council’s music library. It was on his prized stereo that I first heard a local band called Led Zeppelin and enjoyed their Tolkeinesque story telling, harking back to the feudal past and the emergence of capitalism. Some say that Tolkein, who grew up in Birmingham and based The Two Towers on a couple of the city’s landmarks, used the Black Country as the model for the grim region of Mordor in the Lord of the Rings.

Yet, despite Led Zeppelin’s artistic talents, it was another local band, Black Sabbath, who seemed more in tune with my darkening teen and existential angst. They released their song Paranoid at the beginning of the 1970s, described as “the bleakest hit single in [English] history, forged in the dying embers of declining industries across the British Midlands.” These ‘dying embers’ were where my grandad worked as a bricklayer, in the region’s ‘dark Satanic mills’. Close by, my father, like Black Sabbath founder John (Ozzy) Osbourne, grew up living in poverty in a bleak, bomb-ravaged suburb of Birmingham where after leaving school they both went to work in local auto factories. Heavy metal was ‘working class music from industrial towns’ and heavy metals were at the heart of the foundries and furnaces that stretched across the ‘Black Country’. As Black Sabbath launched their assault on our ears, a few miles away a young steelworker was forming Judas Priest and noting; “The factory I worked in was a massive steelwork labyrinth, riddled with polluted canals, massive grimy workshops, foundries and steam hammers. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to realise why metal ended up sounding the way it did.” Nor is it hard to imagine why, having spent much of my childhood in the environment which inspired metal music, growing-up in ‘post-war’ Britain surrounded and raised by survivors and victims of World War Two, during a ‘Cold War’ that was really a hot war, Sabbath’s song War Pigs was my favourite of theirs.

Considered by some as proto-punk – aggressive, bleak, intense, and primitive – heavy metal spoke to my rising anger at the horrors of capitalism and my desire to fight to escape them. Yet despite the hardships endured by my extended family and my determination to resist the same scale of suffering, the most powerful and long-lasting memories of my grandparents are of the Christmases we celebrated together. I can’t remember a Christmas in England without my grandmother Gladys and I’m unsure if this is because we spent every Christmas together, or because Christmas without Gran wasn’t worth remembering. My saddest Christmas was our last one in the U.K., the year before my parents, my brother, and I migrated to Australia. Dad’s father, George, another permanently traumatised World War Two veteran, was meant to spend that Christmas with us, but he never arrived.  My brother and I were told he wasn’t well. After the festivities were over, it was revealed he’d actually died, but our parent’s “didn’t want to ruin Christmas” by telling us.

‘Look to the future now, it’s only just begun’

The overtones of this last English Christmas, as we prepared to leave for ‘the Gong’ on the other side of the world, remain coloured by the hopes, fears, and sadness which permeated our lives at the time. The main sound track of this moment in my life, and the lives of many other people living in Britain during those days, is Slade’s joyful record Merry Xmas Everybody. This was ‘the golden era of the British Christmas single’ which reached its zenith with Britain’s favourite ever Christmas record. In the winter of 1973, Slade were the biggest band in Britain, having had a series of chart toppers featuring their poppier version of heavy rock during the previous year. Slade also heralded from the ‘Black Country’, with their drummer working a ‘day job’ as a metallurgist at a local foundry to pay off his drum kit. Looking to follow-up their success, the band’s singer, Neville ‘Noddy’ Holder, set about producing a ‘Christmas hit’ while spending the night at his mum’s council house in Walsall, where he’d been raised. He described Merry Xmas Everybody as “a working class family song” to cheer people up in the gloomy climate of that year’s ‘silly season’.

It wasn’t only boys who were fretting about leaving almost everything they loved, including Walsall, for an unknown future, who needed cheering up that Christmas. December 1973 was the height of the UK’s ‘energy crisis’ (part of a more general global capitalist crisis following a period of intensified proletarian struggle) when a combination of power cuts and economic gloom saw many in Britain facing Christmas in the cold and dark. In an emergency national broadcast on December 13, Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath told the nation: “We shall have a harder Christmas than we have known since the war.” He also announced a ‘Three-Day Work Order’ and a range of austerity measures, ostensibly to deal with the crisis, but seen and used by the ruling class as an opportunity to weaken militant action. Throughout that winter, hundreds of thousands of people were laid off work and many others suffered the misery of having to work in unheated factories and offices. The Government also introduced a national 50mph speed limit and shops were only allowed to use electric lighting for a total of five days between December 17 and 30. The scale of the cutbacks meant that many parts of the country had no electricity on Christmas Day. When people did have power, this was the song most likely to be heard coming from their TVs, radios and record players.

My family returned to the U.K. in 1977, and it seemed the misery, but not the hope, of our last Christmas in England had remained and deepened. During our stay, the volume of the mainstream media’s fanfare for the Royal Jubilee year was shattered by the sonic force of the Sex Pistol’s hit single God Save the Queen, both a smash hit on the charts and on the smug charade of ruling class elitism. We weren’t able to stay for Christmas that year, so for me, it’s this track which best captures the dissonance of the period and the growing sense that there was ‘no future in England’s dreaming’. As I’ve detailed elsewhere, from then on it was punk that most radically transformed my life, at a tempo which felt like ‘78 revolutions a minute’.

Post-punk music tended to be more politically conservative, but more globally oriented. However, although the focus on western poverty and rebellion receded, the influence of anti-racist campaigning spawned popular protest songs amplifying the concerns of militant struggles in Africa (e.g. Sun City by Artists United Against Apartheid) and launched the Live Aid phenomenon, addressing a widespread desire to do something about the ‘forgotten’ Ethiopian famine in the face of institutional inaction, while becoming the prototype for a new style of celebrity activism. So in 1984, as the remnants of my favourite band, The Clash, played a benefit concert for striking British miners, billed as ‘Arthur Scargill’s Christmas Party’, it was the awkwardly and perhaps aptly named charity super-group ‘Band Aid’ which reached the Christmas number one spot, with their fundraising single Do They Know It’s Christmas? The song was twice re-recorded to again become the number one Christmas hit in 1989 and 2004. Here’s the original version from 1984.

“The tune had been haunting London for weeks past. It was one of countless similar songs published for the benefit of the proles by a sub-section of the Music Department. The words of these songs were composed without any human intervention whatever on an instrument known as a versificator. But the woman sang so tunefully as to turn the dreadful rubbish into an almost pleasant sound.”

(George Orwell, 1984)

Charity ‘band aids’ and ‘rock-star messianism’ have been the subject of widespread derision ever since Do They Know It’s Christmas?  As well, concerns about the increasing commercialisation of music and the corporate distortion, or muffling, of political activism continue to ring out in ongoing debates, while complaints about the death of ‘real music’ have seemingly become the cliché of every aging generation. At the same time, as evidenced by a main story line in the popular Christmas movie Love Actually, the hope of a Christmas hit continues to be the most sought after pop prize in Britain. The Christmas number one is ‘the most talked about and high-profile chart-topper of the year’ and enjoys increased sales over the holiday period. For four years in the late 2000’s, this number one position was colonised by Simon Cowell’s X Factor, with the show’s grand final timed for the Christmas season. Seen by many as the ‘Tone Deaf Grinch Who Stole Christmas’, Cowell’s domination of the Xmas charts was eventually broken by a powerful grass roots social media campaign.

Rage Against the Machine

In 2009, one of my favourite bands, Rage Against the Machine, helped to end X Factor’s rule when more than half a million people downloaded their famously anti-authoritarian track Killing in the Name (released 17 years earlier) in protest against the growing influence of corporatised music. Speaking on BBC Radio One’s Chart Show at the time, Rage’s Zach de la Rocha explained that the band getting to number one for Christmas said “more about the spontaneous action taken by young people throughout the UK to topple this very sterile pop monopoly and less about the song and the band. We are very proud to have had the song chosen as the vehicle by which to do this.”

The campaign to make Killing in the Name the most unlikely of Christmas carols was mainly organised via a Facebook group that quickly transformed itself into an anti-corporate and pro-social justice platform, with participants encouraging each other to support Shelter, an organisation campaigning to end homelessness and bad housing in England and Scotland, and which subsequently received £65,000 in direct public donations. Rage Against the Machine also lent their support to Shelter, donating all of the track’s royalties and promising to play a free ‘thank you gig’ in the U.K. if the campaign for the number one spot was successful. At the ensuing celebratory concert, held in London the following year and attended by forty thousand fans, the band handed over more than £160,000.

In the final weeks of ‘Christmas Rage’, the band increased the volume of the campaign when they performed an uncensored rendition of Killing in the Name live on breakfast BBC Radio Five. Despite the show’s hosts asking them to change the end of the song, during the crescendo of their performance Zach de la Rocha began singing “I won’t do what you tell me”, then after a few lines repeatedly screams the song’s lyrics, “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” It wasn’t until the fourth repetition of this obvious retort to suppression, that the show’s production team cut out the microphone and returned to the studio. “Get rid of it!” radio host Shelagh Fogarty could be heard shouting in the background. “Sorry, we needed to get rid of that because it suddenly turned into something we weren’t expecting,” she told listeners. “Well, we were expecting it and we asked them not to do it and they did it anyway.”

Here’s the band’s radio interview and performance from that day.

What would Christmas be without a special song about hope, peace and love?

bitter-xmas

When I was writing last year’s Christmas blog post, the number one song in the UK still hadn’t been decided. As it turned out, the National Health Service (NHS) Choir beat Justin Bieber in a tightly run race to score the top spot. The choir’s track A Bridge Over You, “a celebration of the NHS” and an instrument in the long-running campaign to defend public health in Britain, reached number one after another grassroots social media campaign, using the hashtag and slogan LoveYourNHS2015. As the NHS faces sustained vicious attacks from the current Tory government, Katie Rogerson, one of the choir members, explained their motivation for the song: “It’s a challenging time for the NHS and morale is quite low … People have a genuine concern for what’s going to happen and for the future of the NHS … We wanted people to recognise all the brilliant things that happen on an everyday basis rather than feel miserable and unappreciated.”

‘Singing the world into existence as an everyday activity’

As is often the case with Christmas hits, the key to A Bridge Over You’s success is a well-versed ensemble of love, hope, and collective harmonies. The continuing affection people have for a common celebration of new beginnings at the end of each year rests on a long history of struggles, where ‘people continue to sing the world into existence as an everyday activity’. So in offering my Christmas tidings to those reading this post at the conclusion of such a difficult year, I have no wish to lament or reproduce Christmases past. Instead I’m keen to embrace Christmas present and the years ahead, with hope in my heart. None-the-less, this is often a time to pause, rewind our memories, and play them again. Yet each time we spin the old turntable and swing back our nostalgic needle, rather than returning to the same historical groove, we instead alter the record. For some this remix provides an encore which mutes various miseries and recomposes affects and emotions to make them less discordant. Those longing for days gone by often seek to erase the harsh realities of the past; but we should refrain from accompanying any conservative chorus seeking comfort in an endless replay of ‘the song remains the same’. Instead, although we live in testing and uncertain times, I hope this Christmas you can savour moments of joy, while keeping in mind the sage advice of Slade’s Noddy Holder – “Look to the future now” because “it’s only just begun.”

Nick Southall

What is Love?

Posted: November 2, 2016 in Uncategorized

heart-question

“Love is what makes you smile when you’re tired.” – Terri, aged 4

“Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas if you stop opening presents and listen.” Bobby, aged 7

“You really shouldn’t say ‘I love you’ unless you mean it. But if you mean it, you should say it a lot. People forget.” – Jessica, aged 8

What is Love? Is it a feeling, an instinct, an emotion, an ideology, a passion, a project, an activity, a form of power, struggle, work, wealth, action, a need, desire, intention, dream, illusion, utopia, or is it all of these, and more? For the past few years, a group of local people have gathered to discuss and debate a wide range of books and articles on this question. In 2014, some of us also organised Love: Art, Ideas, Music, Politics, a two day gathering to celebrate love’s power and share collectively in an exploration of its meaning. To conclude the event those in attendance discussed the question posed above, sharing a diversity of views, experiences, and understandings of love. So, in the lead-up to the forth-coming Love: Art, Ideas, Music, Politics 2017 I thought it was time to revisit this question.

‘Love is more easily experienced than defined.’

I’ve previously published blog posts about love and Christmas, love and advertising (here & here), love and revolution (here and here), about love as a movement, and a form of defence against hate, violence and terror. Yet I continue to struggle with the question of what love is.

Love is socially, economically, politically and culturally constructed. How we imagine love – what we think it is and how we think about it – is learned during childhood and developed through our relationships with each other and the world around us. What it’s like to love and be loved depends on social and individual histories and our understandings and beliefs about love change as we change, as those around us change, and as society changes. In a previous post I pointed out that the vast majority of books on the subject of love work hard to avoid giving clear definitions. According to Morgan Scott Peck love lacks clarity because it “is too large, too deep ever to be truly understood or measured or limited within the framework of words” and “our use of the word ‘love’ is so generalised and unspecific as to severely interfere with our understanding of love.” None-the-less, when asked to produce a short response, I usually define love as the struggle to create, maintain and develop caring social relations.

John Armstrong’s philosophical work, Conditions of Love, explores “the task of separating the many themes, the many strands of thought that, are entangled around our word ‘love’.” He argues that love isn’t a single thing but a complex of different concerns which suggests some of the problems of love. “When we try to love we are not actually trying to undertake a single endeavour; rather, we are trying to do a whole range of different, and sometimes not very compatible, things simultaneously.”

All the Feels

People often think of love as an emotional reaction, as a ‘force or power inside the body’, which spontaneously erupts out of us. Love can produce a range of bodily processes and sensations, chemical reactions, and feelings which we may not clearly perceive, understand, or appear to have control over. But how we interpret and react to our bodies and emotions again reflects our personal and collective circumstances, histories, cultures, and ideologies.

There are various and contested definitions and understandings of emotions, what they are, how they’re created and how they’re experienced. Radical theorists explore emotions as structures of feeling that give meaning to relational experience, arguing you cannot understand love as an emotion from a consideration of the individual, because love is socially constructed,  shaped by acculturation and inter-personal relations. Also, rather than being distinct, emotion and rational thinking can be seen as different ways of regarding the same process. Human interaction involves affecting others, being affected by others and acting on those affects, which then affects others, and so on.  All of these social interactions are power relations and emotions/thought play a crucial role in them. Emotions are thus states of consciousness that go beyond sensations, feelings, expressions, or moods. They involve the recognition, combination, and alteration of these things.

Many theorists have written about the importance of ‘emotion work’ – trying to change in degree or quality an emotion or feeling, in order to manage them – and how this can be done. Deborah Lupton explains how discourses on emotions, including ‘feeling rules’ (shared norms that influence how people try to feel), help to shape and reshape our emotions as continuous projects of subjectivity. Different cultures construct different rules and various prescriptions about what we’re supposed to feel about love and there’s a constant struggle around these ‘feeling rules’ as they’re contested, rise and fall, ebb and flow. These emotion struggles occur both within society and our own consciousness. So, rapid individual or social change can bring about a lack of clarity about what the ‘rules’ of love are, whether there are any rules, and if they should be obeyed. As with the attempt to define love, the emotions of love are uncertain and we often encounter situations where we can’t put our feelings into words, or find it hard to identify which emotion(s) we’re experiencing.

The Power of Love

Love is the result of our action, our caring activities. Since all relationships are power relations, love is about who has power, who has power over us, whether we have power to do what we want, and whether power is shared. I’ve written elsewhere about some of the limits capitalism places on love and it is helpful to appreciate how the dominant social system restricts what we can be, as well as appreciating how much power we have to overcome these limits.

In a recent article about love and what it could be, Natasha Lennard explored some of the problems with how we tend to perceive ‘romantic love’ and how “the mystification of romantic love has been particularly damaging to women.” Renata Grossi  explains that romantic love is often seen by feminist/queer theory as oppressive, patriarchal and heteronormative, while others see love as a site of resistance, transformation and agency, embodying “a radical and permissive ideology.” Many, like bell hooks, seek to salvage and elevate love as a radical and healing practice, arguing for a definition of love as a mutual, life-affirming choice and practice — a verb as well as a noun.

For Natasha Lennard “the key questions are not about what love is but about what love does. Or perhaps more precisely, what we can do with it.” Pessimistic views of love suppose that it weakens, disarms or enslaves us, making us needy, or dependent. Love is often seen as outside of our control, inevitable and overpowering. Many definitions of love “emphasise its spontaneity” and “refuse to acknowledge that it could involve any element of effort or intention.” Here the separation between love and our labour is both misguided and conservative, “to the extent that it suggests that we have no agency, no power to shape the world as we recreate it.”

“It is one thing to feel loving towards someone, another to translate this feeling into words and actions which make the other person feel loved.” (John Armstrong)

Love is a practical matter – it involves caring for people. If love involves a desire ‘to do what is good for others’ – we require an understanding of what that ‘good’ is. Often love is considered to be about caring for others like you care for yourself. But what if you don’t care for yourself, or do so poorly? What if you’re self-abusive or self-destructive? And what if you reject notions of a stable ‘self’? Loving people raises a range of questions about what constitutes their well-being. Since people’s needs and desires are not static, but open to change, caring for others should involve developing a rich sense of what’s important to them, by maintaining an interest in what their needs and desires are. However, it can be incredibly difficult to understand one’s own motivations, desires, or the reasons we act in certain ways. So, it’s fair to assume that we cannot be sure what’s in other people’s heads or hearts, since our experiences, understandings and practices of love are diverse, complex, fluid and multitudinous.

Labours of Love

love-labour

Those who view love as a form of weakness fail to appreciate how caring connections can transform social conditions. Love can be constructed on the basis of hopeful practices and strategies that recognise both the limits and potentials of our relationships. Many people overemphasise the negativity of the world and seek to ruthlessly criticise everything. This is often because they fail to account for the positive impact of love and ignore how the work of love, care and solidarity, re/produce positive developments. Yet it is true that capitalist social relations restrict how and whether we can love – limiting what we can do and what we can be,  damaging our personalities, cutting us off from each other and our potentials, giving rise to numerous internal and external obstacles to love. Importantly we must continue to grapple with how some people’s professed love for themselves, their community, ethnicity, identity, or nation, can involve the hatred of others.

 It is widely recognised and understood that the most important contributor to the development of a child is love – their progress is largely dependent on whether they are cared for, whether those around them, their ‘carers’, love them. So, if the presence or absence of love is the most important aspect in the development of an individual, it is likely the same can be said for all social development. In my previous writing, I’ve explored how the language of love can discipline us to obey, work and consume. What we do with our time, and what we work to produce, are vital considerations. As the distinction between ‘work’ and ‘non-work’ becomes more hazy, questions are frequently raised about what ‘work’ is?, what should we do with our time? and what should we love? Increasingly we’re supposed to love what we do, and find our passions in work. Yet many of us find our paid jobs less and less fulfilling.

A major obstacle when discussing ‘work’ is that the term tends to be limited to the re/productive work of and for capital and neglects the work of constructing living alternatives – the work of love. Love is an achievement; it is something we create, both individually and collectively. Yet love can be hard work. If we’re not prepared for our loving relationships to include struggles with pain and sorrow, and to provoke anxieties and fears, to at times involve loneliness, disappointment, vulnerability and fragility, then we’re ill prepared for love. These normal characteristics of loving relations do not negate love, sure they can make loving more difficult, but pure love is a fantasy. The idea that as a couple we become one person, or that our significant other is ‘the one’ we’re destined to be with, can be torn asunder when we find that we can’t fully understand them, they don’t understand everything about us, and there’s a lot we don’t have in common. John Armstrong explains, it is, therefore, “extremely important to work with a vision of love which sees problems not as the end of love, not as a sign that love is over, but as the ground upon which love operates.”love-anniversary

Most of us want love to last and be able to withstand the difficulties long-term relationships bring with them. My partner, Sharon, and I have been together for 32 years, and as she will tell you, developing and maintaining such an enduring bond is a difficult endeavour. As Sharon explained in her speech at our 25th anniversary party, our love is a shared effort – “Nick and I decided to call this party a ‘celebration of love’ because we wanted to not only celebrate our years together, but also celebrate and say thank you to all of you, our family and friends, for the love, support and friendship we’ve received over those years. When we started thinking about what to do to mark this date, some people suggested that we really should do something romantic together as a couple, rather than have a big party. But we understand and appreciate that it is your love which has made our love possible. So this celebration is a celebration of all of our love.”

love-work

It is widely understood that the labours of love are disproportionately borne by women, most of which is unpaid, with the value, power, and influence of this work under-estimated. At the same time, many men and women believe that sacrificing their lives to stultifying work is an act of love for the family they’re meant to provide for. We tend to surrender much of our lives – minute by minute, day by day, year by year – to the competitive and often hard-hearted pursuit of ‘making a living’. Working for a boss or a bureaucracy, competing with others in a ruthless struggle to ‘get ahead’, undermines our ability to love, leaving too little time or energy for what is most important – those we love and learning the art of loving.

Learning to Love

“Love isn’t to be sought after, it’s everywhere, and to search is self-deception, a charade.” (Leo Buscaglia)

Caring for others continually involves overcoming obstacles, as we work on overcoming these obstacles we learn how to cultivate the growth and development of our loving power. Learning to love involves conscious decisions to change what we do and to take the time necessary to mould new ways of living and being. In his book The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm argues that love is an art and learning this art can be divided into two parts: theory and practice. Love requires a great deal of practice, and theoretical knowledge and the results of practice need to be blended together– what is often called praxis.  But, according to Fromm, there’s a third factor necessary for learning any art — it should be a matter of ultimate concern – and here lies the answer to why people struggle to learn the art of love. Despite a deep-seated craving for love, almost everything else tends to be considered more important: success, prestige, money, possessions, etc. According to Fromm, love is the only thing that can fully connect us to another person – and since he believes that being disconnected from other people is the central problem of our times, love is the solution to the key problem of human existence. Here the problem is not one of finding a person to love, but in developing our capacities to care for others – to love them. Searching for the right ‘object’ diverts attention from these tasks.

Learning to love involves adapting our subjectivities – changing our perceptions, our priorities and our behaviours. In an attempt to give more time to love, and as a way to connect loving theory and practice, the Love 2017 organising group has continued to hold regular discussions about various readings related to love. We’ve looked at the commodification of love and the need to transform work, explored questions about whether, or how, to work for wages, and in what ways the power of love has played a part in social struggles and movements. Recently we read Social Reproduction: Between the Wage & the Commons an interview with Silvia Federici on the importance of care work; for people, relationships, communities and social movements. Federici uses the example of Greece, where capital and its state forms are in deep crisis, to highlight the networks of social solidarity and support  which have been organised to help people survive and to create living alternatives to capitalism. She also discusses the leading role of women in creating these alternatives, arguing that while wages and wage struggles remain important these need to compliment struggles to expand our autonomy from capital, and to reappropriate the wealth we create.

Exploring the importance of love to social re/production, the Love reading group has considered the situation of many care workers, such as nurses, educators, etc., who are dissatisfied with their paid work because they cannot do a decent job due to constant cuts, erosion of working conditions, casualisation and the continual re-organisation of their work, which erodes the social relations between those who care/are cared for. This, of course, reflects a more general pattern where caring relationships (family ties, friendships, etc.) are undermined. Via another reading (Bridging the Worlds of Therapy & Activism: Intersections, Tensions & Affinities) we’ve looked at the difficulties of “working in accordance with our ethical stance” and how going against this stance causes us pain. This article highlights the importance of believing our work matters, that what we do makes a positive difference. Yet, the authors ask, how can our usefulness be measured? Their answer is – it cannot. However the value of what we do can be indicated by other people, when they acknowledge its worth. Therefore, they argue, we need ‘solidarity teams’ to help nuture and support us, to remind us of our ethics, and so we can work in constructive cooperative collaborations. These ‘solidarity teams’ may include family, work mates, friends, allies, and even people we’ve never met (e.g. for me bell hooks or Joe Strummer can be on my team).

Loving Solidarity

love-solidarity

There’s a growing need for the collective organising of affective politics and various forms of ‘solidarity teams’ can provide times/spaces where we develop reciprocal caring relationships. Over the last few years, one of my most important ‘solidarity teams’ has been the Love group. Together we sustain and support each other, offer camaraderie, and help to provide hope. We also learn about how other people are trying to do the same. Recently we read The Street Syndicate: Re-organising Informal Work by Carlos Delclos which focuses on the struggles of informal workers in Barcelona to help examine the growing importance of this work and the need to organise it collectively, with the aim of putting human dignity above property rights. Carlos explores various perspectives on the ‘informal economy’ and considers how the ‘sharing economy’ can both reinforce capitalist exploitation and provide mutual aid. Importantly he also highlights how Barcelona’s African and unemployed communities take care of each other through self-organisation and group solidarity.

Another article that struck a chord among the reading group, and among others who talked about it on social media, was ‘Life-hacks of the Poor & Aimless‘ by Laurie Penny. She examines a number of issues raised during the group’s previous discussions, including the problem of activist burn-out, the importance of taking care of yourself and others, and the relationship between self-care/individual fulfilment and collective engagement/social solidarity. Laurie points out that queer and feminist communities understand the personal is political and that ‘real love’ is an action rather than just a feeling.  Commenting on Facebook, in a heart-felt response to this text, one of our friends explained how she had countered her own anxiety through contributing to the community and by reconnecting to her political ideals via engaging in collective struggle. Recent social movements, such as Love Makes a Way  or Equal Love, reflect similar understandings and seek to deploy love politically. Last month, the Love reading group discussed The meaning of love in the debate for legal recognition of same-sex marriage in Australia by Renata Grossi.  This article revolved around the need to pose the marriage equality campaign as a struggle about love in order to counter the restriction of love to heterosexual relationships, to help transform social perceptions of love, and to demonstrate the power of mobilising love. She concluded by arguing that we need to redefine love “in a way that retains its utopian ideals” and expresses “love’s optimism.”

What is Love?

Some of you may have read this post looking for a simple, complete theory of love; a pithy answer to the question posed, rather than ideas suggesting the richness and varieties of love and the wide-ranging debates and activities currently spreading around the world. Narrow notions of love limit our imaginations and horizons, while open and expansive conceptions of love both challenge us and indicate how our social encounters and collaborations can bring us joy. The purpose of the Love group and the upcoming Love: Art, Ideas, Music, Politics event is to foster continuing dialogue and encounter. We interpret our theme broadly and are interested in conversations that celebrate love’s power and share collectively in an exploration of its meaning. This might be a personal exploration of the way we interact with each other and the world, or a discussion about how to deepen solidarity and peace, build strong communities, lessen alienation and inequality. It might be a creative workshop that explores love through movement, art or music. Rather than providing definitive answers – we prefer to carry on discussing and debating various forms of love, their uses and usefulness – constructing a range of responses as we ‘learn to love by loving’. Recognising that love is a form of power produced by our efforts to create alternative relationships and community, we seek to develop grounded optimism and realistic hope for the future, as we continue to ask – what is love?

Nick Southall

Love: Art, Ideas, Music, Politics 2017 –  website

Love: Art, Ideas, Music, Politics 2017 – Facebook page

Sources

Armstrong, J., 2001, Conditions of Love: the Philosophy of Intimacy, Penguin, London.

bell, h., 2000, All About Love: New Visions, Harper, New York.

Delclos, C., 2016, ‘The Street Syndicate: Re-organising Informal Work’, Roar Magazine, Issue #2, pp. 55 – 67.

Federici, S. & Sitrin, M., 2016, ‘Social Reproduction: Between the Wage & the Commons’, Roar Magazine, Issue #2, pp. 34 – 43.

Fromm, E., 2010, The Art of Loving, HarperCollins, New York.

Grossi, R., 2012, ‘The meaning of love in the debate for legal recognition of same-sex marriage in Australia’, International Journal of Law in Context, Volume 8, Issue 4, pp. 487 – 505.

Lupton, D., 1998, The Emotional Self: A Sociocultural Exploration, SAGE Publications, London.

Reynolds, V., interviewed by Hammoud-Beckett, S., 2012, ‘Bridging the Worlds of Therapy & Activism: Intersections, Tensions & Affinities’, International Journal of Narrative Therapy and Community Work,  Number 4, pp. 57 – 61.

Scott Peck, M., 1978, The Road Less Travelled:  A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual Growth, Simon Schuster, New York.

winter 2

I intended to call this post ‘Is Winter Coming? because this was a question posed during autumn, when the weather was unseasonably hot. In fact, we’ve just experienced the hottest autumn on record and for a long time it seemed as if winter was never coming. Yet as we enjoyed an ‘endless summer’, it was hard to ignore that this was just a taste of the climate change threatening our lives. At the same time, a political chill was sweeping across much of the globe. Along with terror and war, hatred, racism, xenophobia, religious conservatism, fundamentalism, nationalism, right-wing extremism, ethnic cleansing, Islamophobia, homophobia, and misogyny, all darkened our horizons. Here in Australia, new resistances also emerged to the black shirts of the border force, the ultra-right threat on our streets, racist militarism, and the torture and death camps. Is winter coming?

I decided on the title Winter is Here, when, as if to remind us that the diversity of climate change is already upon us, winter finally arrived, bringing a major storm to the east coast of Australia, causing flooding, widespread destruction, and resulting in the declaration of a ‘disaster zone’ in this region and many others. While we mourned the dead and repaired the damage, a number of friends re-posted a previous Revolts Now post – Disaster Communism – which discusses the way people often respond to such events with altruism, resourcefulness, generosity and love – and how authorities often respond with fear, panic, repression, and savagery. Winter is here.

Love or Hate

As the storm recovery was underway, news of its aftermath was overshadowed by the horrific slaughter in Orlando. While the motives for this attack were widely debated, a series of vigils and funerals began, and a common theme emerged – the attack was a hate crime and the best response was to promote, support, and enact, love.

Orlando love

Just days later, winter fell on a village in the north of England, when Jo Cox, the local Labour MP and a mother of two young children, was stabbed and shot to death by a fascist assassin. Jo was a vocal opponent of Islamophobia and a passionate advocate for refugees. While still alive, she argued that we “have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.” Her husband Brendan put out a statement the day after she died saying; “Jo believed in a better world and she fought for it every day of her life with an energy, and a zest for life that would exhaust most people. She would have wanted two things above all else to happen now, one that our precious children are bathed in love and two, that we all unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesn’t have a creed, race or religion, it is poisonous.” How to defend ourselves against hate is a crucial but difficult question and the importance of love to positive social transformation is becoming more obvious. Our loving resistance is at the heart of the crisis of capitalism, because love is a demand that capitalism cannot provide, a desire that it cannot satisfy, instead love is created by struggling against capitalism. Today there’s a global movement to promote love as a power for revolutionary social development and change. That’s why hate is being deployed against us and why we assert – ‘your hate will not defeat love!’

Jo Cox banner

‘Winter is Coming’

The phrase ‘winter is coming’ has been popularised by the TV show Game of Thrones (GOT), a tale that captures the mood and temper of our times. In GOT, ‘winter is coming’ isn’t a proclamation of doom, nor is it meant to be a contemporary version of ‘the end is nigh’; instead it’s a warning – be vigilant. This call for vigilance is increasingly common as it speaks to widespread social anxieties about environmental and social crisis, climate change, war, terrorism, job and financial insecurity, and a range of other concerns.

According to George R. R. Martin, “history is written in blood” and his GOT characters are constantly haunted by the vicious and icy history hanging over their fantasy world. As well, those seeking to do some good are regularly reminded that ‘the night is dark and full of terrors’. While this truism is deployed to scare and intimidate people, the threat of the living dead – those for whom life is nothing – is rising again and the Seven Kingdoms have turned a blind eye, as they remain embroiled in civil war. This life during wartime, where armies continually gather, coups are prepared, barbarism is common place and walls are meant to secure borders, suggests an obvious comparison between the media spectacle of a TV show and a range of electoral versions of Game of Thrones, including the current US presidential election campaign featuring Donald Trump & Hillary Clinton in the starring roles.

Occupying the White House

The campaign for U.S. president has featured two of the most interesting candidates for many years. Not surprisingly, the self-described ‘democratic socialist’ candidate has received much less publicity than a multi-billionaire right-wing TV star. But importantly, not only has the Bernie Sanders campaign popularised socialism in the United States, its most powerful message has been that political/social movements are the greatest social forces, not electoral systems.

The Sanders campaign both reflects and feeds off a groundswell of grass roots participatory organising which was powerfully invigorated by the Occupy movement. Those who maintain beliefs in the electoral system and representative democracy have sought to occupy space within government, even within the White House – attempting to make this ‘public space’. Such a campaign once again poses questions about whether state-focused struggles can assist progressive social movements? Can state power be used to deepen democracy? How does a diverse movement of movements, avoid being co-opted, infiltrated, captured and managed by capitalist state forms?

The mainstream media went into overdrive to downplay and sideline the Sanders campaign, with Trump receiving the lion share of publicity, helping to channel widespread anger with the political and economic establishment into the rise of authoritarianism. Trump provides a smokescreen to obscure the Sanders campaign – starving it of media oxygen and helping to position Hillary Clinton as the ‘progressive’ candidate – in order to counter widespread rebellion and defend the ruling class. Meanwhile, the ‘Sandernistas’ have discovered that the Democratic Party is anything but democratic – a lesson seemingly needing to be learned by generation after generation of U.S. reformists.

The menace of Trump’s presidential campaign is only the most visible example of a political climate change. While the horrors of a Trump presidency are hard to comprehend, some ask; how much does it matter who gets elected? What difference does it make whether Trump beats Clinton? Or whether Clinton beats Sanders? In Australia, where the election race is still a 50/50 call, similar questions about the two major parties are understandable, since so little differentiates them. After all, doesn’t real power lie elsewhere – isn’t it the ‘ruling class’ who actually rule? Isn’t representative politics just a sham democracy – a cover for the dictatorship of capital?

But its cold comfort to believe it doesn’t matter whether a Green candidate or a far-right candidate gets to be Austria’s President? Or whether Golden Dawn or Syriza are elected in Greece? When we consider our options, doesn’t much of the world show us that extremist violence and hate could now have the hour? Are we really ready to let it all burn?

Here in Australia, the extended Federal election campaign feels like it’s lasted much longer than the current GOT season, and unlike that show, many are wishing we could just get it over with. There have been some interesting moments, like when the reactionary Murdoch press called for voters to ‘save’ Labor MP Anthony Albanese from the challenge of anti-capitalist Green candidate Jim Casey.  Luckily for me, at least in this election I get to vote for one of my friends, Cath Blakey, the local Greens candidate. (For those interested in debates about the potentials and pitfalls of such Green electoral campaigns I highly recommend my friend Dave and Jon’s latest podcast).

Still, there is widespread mistrust of political parties and the political process in much of the world. Growing numbers of people see that power tends to lie elsewhere – both in the hands of the ‘ruling class’ and the social movements. Whoever wins the throne – the emperor has no clothes.

Winter of Our Discontent

What increasingly appears to be a stark choice between real democracy or no democracy, has also been brought into focus by the Brexit referendum. Not that this was the choice on offer. Although ‘taking back control of Britain’ was an attempt by some to democratise political institutions, for many it was about restricting other people’s room to move. The ‘Leave’ vote advanced the growing popularity of xenophobic isolationism, while those on the left supporting Brexit posited an escape from an undemocratic neoliberal union of European Central Bank dictatorship and austerity. For those on the left supporting ‘Remain’, the rise of nationalism and the growing danger of the far-right concentrated their minds on defending the European project, at a time when it appears to be disintegrating. However, both retreating to defend the sovereignty of the nation-state, or the fortressing of Europe as a project of internationalism, are clearly problematic in a ‘globalised’ world. As the Brexit votes were declared, the picture which emerged was of a widespread rejection of elites, growing vulnerability and division; a polarised country in a polarising world. With much of the continent now gripped by fear and a ‘crisis of compassion’, border fences are rapidly going back up. But these walls are no defence against the powerful forces breaking the bonds of the current world order and the civil wars in Ukraine, Turkey, Syria and Libya suggest Europe is on the brink of disaster.

Contrary to popular belief, World War Two did not defeat fascism and the Cold War isn’t over. In a relentless global war of terror – any victory or defeat seems fleeting and today we’re faced with growing doubts about our safety. At a time of great instability, as systemic crisis intensifies, sections of the ruling class are fanning fascism in order to defend their power and privilege, to maintain their oppressive apparatus, and to stymie popular revolt. The fostering of fear, hatred and bigotry is being normalised, while state authorities concentrate on countering some types of fascism, they continue to perpetuate and promote a range of nationalist, militarist and authoritarian alternatives. When capitalism is in deep crisis, the tendency towards polarisation doesn’t indicate our conquest or weakness but the system’s fearful reaction to proletarian power. Our micro and macro rebellions are at the heart of capital’s vulnerability – we are the crisis that winter is meant to dispel.

As political polarisation increases, intensified struggles are erupting between progressive movements and radical right forces.  In Greece, which suffered under a military dictatorship during the 1960s and 70s, the far-right’s recent successes have been eclipsed by those of the left. As I have explored elsewhere, while those who pinned their hopes on the Greek electoral process have been disappointed, the power and promise of Greece’s solidarity movements remains. In Paris, after the terror attacks last year, a state of emergency was declared, protests were banned, and the extreme right sought to profit from the situation. Yet, a few months later, France is being rocked by a massive strike and protest movement seeking to defend previous social gains and attempting to develop more democratic ones. As well, the rise of the ‘new radical left’ in Spain, where the fascist dictatorship lasted for 40 years until the mid-1970s, has transformed the political situation in that country. These are just some recent examples of continuing widespread struggles against, within, and beyond the capitalist system.

French cops

In South America, political polarisation is also intensifying. For instance, those who recently cheered as a gang of corrupt right-wing politicians led a successful ‘coup’ against Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff last month, were quickly reminded of that nation’s dark history. In the 1970s, during Brazil’s brutal military dictatorship, Rousseff, at that time in her 20’s, was viciously tortured. For months she was abused and left rotting in a dark cell, surrounded by her own shit and blood. During the torture, she took a punch to the face that broke several of her teeth and twisted her jaw forever. She was electrocuted, with high voltage wires attached to her breasts, vagina, and inside her mouth. She was tied upside down as the shocks made her eyes glaze over and her mouth foam until she completely passed out. A doctor would assess whether she was still alive and after she woke up, the torture would start all over again. The man who did this to her was honoured last month in the Brazilian Congress by one of the most prominent defenders of Rousseff’s impeachment, Jair Bolsonaro, who is now planning to run for president in the next election.

Dilma Rousseff

                                            Dilma Rousseff, at 22, in a military court (1970)

Yet despite suggestions that the ‘pink tide’ in the region is going out, the future is far from settled. Many people have good reason to protest and reject the machinations of state capitalist experiments in Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela and it’s no surprise that right-wing forces have taken advantage of popular discontent to oust, or destabilise, progressive administrations. Yet, for how long they can harness economic crisis and broad-based distrust of the political process remains unclear. For all of their mistakes, failures, and betrayals, the fall/crisis of left governments is riven with contradictions which herald both opportunities and dangers for those engaged in anti-capitalist struggle. The institutions of these regimes were/are sometimes guided by communist desires and have at times defended democracy from fascism and reaction. Still, I have written elsewhere about the potentials and pitfalls of the revolutionary process in Venezuela and it is of great concern that the central question there is now more clearly – what will the army do?  None-the-less, anti-capitalist social movements remain broadly popular and powerful across South America. The struggles continue.

The Summer of Love and a Global Spring

Across the globe, political systems are thawing out, offering a range of dangers and possibilities. So, perhaps, despite the cold of winter, we should join those who declare – Summer is Coming!

summer is coming

Yet many now fear the heat of our future summers, believing this will eventually rid the planet of humanity. While some dream of a cleansing fire – the power of violence to solve vulnerability and free us from slavery (Daenerys is coming?) – rather than revenge fantasies, what we really need is another ‘Summer of Love’. Historically, though, it is spring which is most closely associated with revolt and renewal. In the past few years, revolutionary uprisings have blossomed in many parts of the world. Although the suppressing of the Arab Spring illustrates how counter-revolution can put our desires back on ice and freeze our horizons, let’s not lose sight of the freedom fighters of Rojava and the continuing bravery of those struggling through the harshest of winters, as they continue to plant seeds for a different, more beautiful world.

So, instead of wondering, is winter coming? Let’s hope this is our winter and a new spring is coming. Or even better, let’s make sure that this is capitalism’s winter, by helping to sow a global spring of rebellion, democracy, peace and love. In the face of the extremes of winter, or summer, let’s renew our appreciation of people’s ability to change history, to take effective collective action, to struggle together despite various differences, to create progressive change, to construct a range of living alternatives, to reshape the world. We can get what we need and deserve because we are organising and struggling for it. Winter is here – but spring is coming!

Nick Southall

Once upon a time . . . I decided to write about fictitious capital and the term ‘extend and pretend’.

At a friend’s NYE party he voiced confusion about the way capitalism values things. I replied that this meant he had a good grasp of the current situation. For those at the party concerned about their house prices, superannuation, pensions, investments, etc., our conversation wasn’t very reassuring. They preferred the story where you work hard, save, invest and can rely on the system to reward you. Yet, like many, they worry this is a fading illusion. Nevertheless, what choice do they have, but to keep going and imagine things will be OK?

‘Extend and pretend’ has become a popular way to describe the current situation in Greece, where the nation’s debts cannot be repaid, so their lenders extend loans, provide  more loans, and pretend they’ll get their money back later. This popular fiction is supposed to defer greater economic crisis and collapse, by putting off dealing with reality until sometime in the future. More generally ‘extend and pretend’ is the motto of ‘late capitalism’ in the face of a growing range of existential crises.

The ‘extend and pretend’ story of Greece is a tale of democracy. You know the one – people vote in elections, they’re represented by politicians, and citizens get a say in  government policies. Most likely, since you’re reading this blog, you also understand there’s a ruling class and corporate power is greater than that of any parliament. This was clearly demonstrated last year, when the hope and disappointment of the Syriza government revealed how state forms, elections, and popular votes can be subordinated to finance capital and ‘market forces’.

A popular tale of capitalist institutions is that economic decision making is ‘technical’ or ‘administrative’, rather than political, as if class struggle wasn’t at the heart of social history. In the ‘birthplace of democracy’, we saw how a nation’s future rests on the country’s credit rating and the demands of financial managers. The façade of democracy was exposed, as the impossibility of national governments deciding economic policies without the consent of ‘the market’ became clear.

Whose script . . ?

In 2008, the near-collapse of the global financial system was overcome through the conversion of bank debts into government debts and the implementation of austerity policies in many parts of the world. After being rescued with taxpayer’s money, the banking bosses voted that financial discipline was now required from the governments and people who’d saved them. This tragedy saw Greece in the spotlight, as a series of austerity measures was enforced, so new loans could be provided to ‘keep the country afloat’, even though there’s no way the mounting debts can ever be paid back. Austerity shrunk the Greek economy dramatically. Tens of thousands of businesses closed down. More than a million people lost their jobs and half of all young people are unemployed. Welfare benefits and government services have been slashed – poverty is widespread.

Last year, when Syriza won the national elections and formed a new anti-austerity government, it was made clear that their election wouldn’t be allowed to interfere with the economic policies being prescribed by the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Instead they were commanded to execute further cuts – in order to get more loans, just to make the nation’s debt repayments. Then, in a national referendum, Greek voters rejected austerity. But in a vicious plot twist the financial institutions forced the closer of Greek banks and created a more severe economic and social crisis. The government’s resistance was broken and they agreed to deeper budget cuts, continued privatisation of government assets, more job losses, and an ongoing social disaster.

For many parts of the world this is a familiar story. When ‘the market’ decides that discipline is required, we witness the structural adjustment programs or ‘shock therapy’ prescriptions of the IMF, World Bank, ECB, etc. Again and again, people and governments are called on to demonstrate their subservience to capital, or face the consequences.

greece demo

Fictitious capital

Like the fables of capitalist democracy, I have long found it annoying how those who write economic theory tell stories about ‘fantasy scenarios’ to explain the unreal worlds they describe. However, when we explore fictitious capital; ‘all that is solid melts into air’. Fictitious capital includes credit, shares, bonds, speculation and various forms of money, whose value is based on imagined future earnings. Banks and other financial institutions sell these claims to future profits, generating and accumulating more fictitious capital. When banks loan out more money than they possess, they create fictitious capital. Most of the lending done by banks is to other banks and financial institutions, buying and selling fictitious capital to each other – making bets with each other about whether the price of this capital will rise or fall in the coming days. The narrative of this fiction is constructed by means of a balancing act performed by the most powerful governments and banks, as fictitious capital is continually invented as a symbol of confidence in the future of capitalism.

There’s no clear distinction between capital which is ‘real’ and capital which is fictitious. As this becomes more widely understood, capitalism appears as precarious and crisis ridden to governments, banks, and corporate bosses as it does to us. Because people around the world have resisted paying for the current crises and have intensified their struggles against capital, the imagined gains from fictitious capital must be postponed for longer and longer and the promise of future profits must be renewed again and again. With little belief in the long-term viability of their accumulated wealth, capitalist gangs fight each other in destructive turf wars, intensifying the crises of capitalism and destroying the basis for continuing expansion and growth. As crisis intensifies, the main source of new capital is the continued fiction conjured up in the finance sector. Today, global trade in actual goods is only a tiny fraction of the trade in various forms of finance capital and the mass of fictitious capital circulating in the money markets, futures exchanges, and so on, is far greater than ever before. The market value of such capital is a creation of supply and demand factors which are manipulated for profit in a global story-telling contest. As fictitious capital has become the engine of production and capital accumulation, the whole system is increasingly precarious, reliant on continuing confidence in a concocted system, tottering from crisis to crisis.

Money talks . . . shit

There remains a popular fable that money has to be earned, even though the rich tend to be born with their wealth and/or steal it. The value of money is another fiction, fabricated by the world’s central banks and commercial financial institutions. A central bank introduces new money into the economy by purchasing bank deposits, bonds or stocks or by lending money to other financial bodies. Commercial banks borrow money and then multiply this money by creating interest bearing loans (most of this money exists only as a book-keeping entry). These loans are then considered to be among the bank’s assets. Since the GFC, China, USA, Britain, Japan and the Eurozone have created an estimated $12 trillion of money which didn’t previously exist. This money may appear to offer a reliable measure of wealth, yet many of us are familiar with how the value of money can fall (like the Australian dollar) or totally disintegrate (e.g. in Germany during the 1920s or Zimbabwe in 2008 when the inflation rate was estimated at 231,000,000% – yes 231 million) and how access to your money can disappear overnight (e.g. in Argentina 2001, Iceland 2008, Cyprus 2013).

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Last year, annual inflation in Venezuela hit over 140 percent. According to the country’s Central Bank, the lion’s share of this was caused by currency manipulation (deliberate attacks on the value of Venezuelan money) as part of an ‘economic war’ to bring down the country’s socialist government. Currency manipulation and speculation, rigging and betting on the ‘value’ of money, is the largest market/scam in history, estimated at a couple of quadrillion dollars per year (that’s two million billion dollars). As discussed below, the institutions dominating this multi-trillion-dollar-a-day trade are able to stage-manage the way they play with money as a form of sophisticated criminal theatre. Yet, in his latest book, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, Professor David Harvey sounds a warning about the growing destabilisation of money,  arguing that; “The rise of cyber moneys, like Bitcoin, in some instances seemingly constructed for purposes of money-laundering around illegal activities, is just the beginning of an inexorable descent of the monetary system into chaos.”

Harvey details a range of illegal activities that are crucial to capitalist appropriation, including robbery, cheating, and swindling, along with a range of ‘shady practices’ such as price fixing, Ponzi schemes, falsification of asset valuations, interest rate manipulation and money laundering, while arguing; “it is stupid to seek to understand the world of capital without engaging with the drug cartels, traffickers in arms and the various mafias and other criminal forms of organisation that play such a significant role in world trade.” Yet, if we are to explore and try to understand the lawless underworld, we shouldn’t neglect how the global finance industry is constructed by and for criminal activities, and what this could mean when considering the potential collapse of the monetary system.

My favourite TV show last year was the second season of Fargo. This fiction revolved around a criminal gang war in the 1970s, and its impact on two families and two communities. The final episode opens with a roll call of all the bodies that have piled up around Fargo and Dakota over the previous episodes. The big city crime ‘Syndicate’ has come out on top and their hitman, Mike Milligan, has seemingly made every correct step in advancing through the bloodshed. He avoids the slaughters and takes out those who stand in his way, but when he gets back to base, hoping to become the new territory’s top dog, he’s instead promoted to the accounting department. “This is the future,” his crime boss tells him. “The sooner you realise there’s only one business left in the world, the money business, just ones and zeroes, the better off you’re gonna be.”

There once lived some . . . banksters

Many people have a traditional view of banks – we deposit money, they loan money, and make investments. Yet, when we get angry about their fees, charges, and obscene profits, we often complain ‘they’re robbing us’. This criticism is fairly accurate – commercial banks are corporations that steal money. Their theft is part of the more widespread ‘legal crimes’ of robbery and exploitation at the core of capitalism. As well, banks and bankers are often involved in a whole range of illegal criminal undertakings.

From popular fiction we know Swiss banks have long been a favoured repository of capital from illicit activities. The role of these banks in laundering Nazi loot and their complicity with the holocaust is legendary. More recently, banks in so-called ‘tax havens’ or ‘countries of financial secrecy’, such as the Canary Islands or the Bahamas, are regularly reproached for hiding away ill-gotten gains. Some readers may also recall the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) which collapsed in the early 1990s. BCCI was the seventh largest private bank in the world and a nest of corruption, money laundering and other secretive activities. In a report on the bank’s failure, John Kerry (at the time US Vice President and currently Secretary of State) explained; “BCCI’s criminality included fraud by BCCI and BCCI customers involving billions of dollars; money laundering in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas; BCCI’s bribery of officials in most of those locations; support of terrorism, arms trafficking, and the sale of nuclear technologies; management of prostitution; the commission and facilitation of income tax evasion, smuggling, and illegal immigration; illicit purchases of banks and real estate; and a panoply of financial crimes limited only by the imagination of its officers and customers.”

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A long, long, time ago . . .

The collapse of BCCI was much like the fall of Australia’s legendary Nugan Hand bank in the 1970s. After this bank’s collapse, a Royal Commission found it was involved in money laundering, illegal tax avoidance schemes, and widespread violations of banking laws. The bank was also implicated in drug smuggling, illegal weapons deals, and providing a front for the criminal activities of the US Central Intelligence Agency.

Before the GFC, the US Savings and Loans (S&Ls) crisis of the 1980s and 1990s was the greatest bank collapse (described by many as a ‘robbery’) since the Great Depression. By 1989, more than one thousand S&Ls had failed, effectively ending what had once been a secure source of home mortgages. Many S&Ls were engaged in criminal practices, fraud, false accounting, forgery, and dishonest conduct as deliberate commercial policy. In 1996, the US General Accounting Office estimated the total cost of the S&Ls collapse to taxpayers at more than $132 billion.

The regular exposure of bank criminality includes the recent guilty pleas by four major global banks to manipulating the foreign money exchange market. They joined three other major banks shown to be involved in the same crime. These charges stem from an agreement by the banks not to commit more offences, after the ‘Libor scandal’ of 2012, involving the fraudulent manipulation of interest rates by a whole range of prominent financial institutions. Meanwhile, those who’ve closely followed the GFC and its aftermath will appreciate that the above examples are just the tip of an unfathomable criminal-banking iceberg.

The GFC also made clear that corporate criminals usually have the power to avoid charges and convictions. While the myth of a fair legal system, where law enforcement ensures goodness prevails, still holds some currency – it’s also commonly understood that the wealthy are protected and there’s ‘one law for them and another one for us’. The stories of ‘equality before the law’ and ‘criminal justice’ are now worn-out deceptions, evidenced by popular culture, where police, politicians, judges, and corporate bosses are regularly portrayed as crooked characters up to their necks in crime & corruption. Even though the poor are still more likely to be considered a ‘criminal class’, the fact that the most serious crimes are committed by the rich and powerful is increasingly understood. Yet, banksters don’t go to prison; instead the cells are reserved for their victims.

A factory of broken dreams . . .

Since the GFC and global recession began, there’s been a series of movies about the banking and finance industries (e.g. Wolf of Wall Street, Margin Call, Wall Street – Money Never Sleeps, The Big Short), often highlighting the crimes of banksters. In January, I went to see the latest of these – The Big Short, which is based on a ‘true story’ about the GFC.

 

Part of the film is set in a financial traders convention, appropriately held in Las Vegas, where the financial market is compared to a casino. Yet, what the movie could have made clearer was that for the major players, just like in a casino, ‘the bank always wins’ – for those deemed ‘too big to fail’ there was no serious risk of losing. These ‘players’ can gamble on almost anything, including betting on the failure of loans, the collapse of currencies, countries, other financial institutions, and even the bankruptcy of their own client’s. Leading up to the GFC, major finance corporations like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan Chase, created fraudulent pyramid schemes, sold them to investors, and bet they would fail.

I used to be a keen punter with some knowledge of how the gambling industry was used to swindle people and launder the proceeds of crime. So I based my selections on various theories about how racing was corrupt and the races rigged. Today, the revenue from the ‘legal’ gambling industry is estimated to be around $US500 billion per year. While illegal gambling turnover is believed to run into the trillions of dollars. Yet, this is nothing compared to the hundreds of trillions of dollars’ worth of bets on various fictional accounts of the future and the assorted ways of measuring these fictions. Despite its weaknesses, The Big Short was disturbing, especially if you have a lot of money in a bank, financial institution, pension fund, etc., since it made a strong case that this money was all on the gambling table, and at any moment you could lose everything to the villains who run the game.

Another disturbing movie, from 2010, is the academy award winning documentary Inside Job. This film centres on the systemic corruption of the United States by the finance industry and what the filmmakers term the ‘biggest bank heist in world history’ – the theft of trillions of dollars, leading up to and during the GFC, by those in charge of the major financial institutions. As the film makes clear, this robbery was facilitated by a revolving door between the banks and the higher reaches of government, where bank/financial corporation CEOs become government officials, creating laws convenient for their past/future employers. To indicate how pervasive this revolving door is, we only need to consider the involvement of banking, securities and investment firm Goldman Sachs in the governments of USA, Nigeria, Egypt, Spain, Czech republic, Italy, Sweden, and the appointment of their directors as heads of the Bank of England, the Bank of Greece, and the European Central Bank. And let’s not forget the current Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, was previously the chair and managing director of Goldman Sachs Australia.

 

As Inside Job explores, during the GFC, the financial system froze up and it appeared the global economy may come to a halt, after investment banks Lehman Brothers, Bear Sterns and Merrill Lynch all collapsed. Yet, after the ‘biggest bank robbery in history’, the commercial banking sector was bailed out of the situation they’d created with trillions of dollars of money from national governments. Then, those who’d profited most from the crisis were put in charge of reforming the finance industry ‘to ensure a similar collapse didn’t happen again’. The result was larger and more powerful financial corporations conducting ‘business as usual’. Meanwhile many other businesses went broke, global stock markets dropped, and housing prices crashed, resulting in evictions, foreclosures and mass homelessness. Tens of millions of people lost their jobs and unemployment skyrocketed. Poverty rose and wealth was redistributed on a massive scale from workers/poor to the rich. Having bailed out the banks, governments around the world cut back expenditure, unleashed austerity programs, and normalised a prolonged crisis, which continues to this day.

Some readers may recall another popular documentary, from 2005, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, which gave some forewarning of the practices behind the GFC.

 

Enron was the seventh largest corporation in the US – buying and selling energy, running energy services and gambling on energy prices. Enron turned the energy industry into a casino, betting on the price of energy – while controlling the supply and creating a phoney energy crisis, involving rolling blackouts in California. For years, Enron always seemed to win – but this was a lie constructed using phoney accounting and falsified bank records/financial statements. The company’s fictitious earnings allowed them to publish imaginary profits, in order to maintain optimism in the firm and sustain a rising share price, while losing billions and getting deeper into debt, until the whole house of cards came crashing down.  The CEOs cashed out their stocks, while the price was still high, and made off with the loot. Billions in investor, government, pension, and retirement funds disappeared.

Leading financial institutions assisted Enron’s deceptive practices, helping to design their fictions and profiting from them. Financial analysts at the time argued they didn’t understand how Enron was making money – “you just had to have faith in it.” When Enron went bankrupt (at that time the largest ever US corporate bankruptcy and widely described as the ‘corporate crime of the century’), the same people who’d received generous offerings from the firm were expected to investigate the company for fraud. Nearly every US Senator and member of the House of Representatives involved in the committees investigating Enron’s collapse, or the conduct of Enron’s accounting firm, had received donations from one or both companies.

Who pays the piper . . . ?

At the centre of the GFC was a crisis of debt and value. As the financial system went into meltdown the experts of finance and economics were at a loss to explain or calculate the value of shares, money and assets. They repeatedly exclaimed that the crisis was ‘too complex’, that they ‘lacked reliable data’; they didn’t know what had happened or was happening. This is a huge problem for the system, as it requires measuring processes and values that result in common activity for capitalism. Importantly, debt couldn’t be accurately valued. It became clear that trillions of dollars’ worth of loans were not going to be repaid – so most were ‘rolled over’ (becoming ‘new’ extended loans). Since then, debts have continued to grow faster than economies, with families, companies and governments borrowing an estimated $57 trillion more than they’d already borrowed.

Examining the debt situation in Greece, Slavoj Zizek argues; “The true goal of lending money to the debtor is not to get the debt reimbursed with a profit, but the indefinite continuation of the debt that keeps the debtor in permanent dependency and subordination.” Debts are meant to maintain a hierarchy of power, since the daily reproduction of capitalism is centred on social control through the imposition of work for capital. Yet John Holloway explains that: “Debt is essentially a game of make-believe: it is capital saying ‘if we cannot make the workers produce the profits we require, if we cannot impose the submission that we require, then we shall pretend that we can: we shall create a monetary image of the profits we need.’” Elsewhere (e.g. Radio Interview, Global Revolt, Class Struggle in China), I’ve supported an analysis that argues ‘we are the crisis of capital’ – that powerful resistance to and rebellion against capitalist work has thrown the system into question, that there’s a widespread rejection of capitalist values, and the GFC was a generalised vote of ‘no confidence’ by ‘the market’ in both people’s willingness and ability to pay their debts.

Today, confidence in capitalist fictions is again at a very low level. Last month, the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) made headlines when it warned about growing debt, the coming “cataclysmic year”, and another crash; telling investors to “sell everything”. But before you follow their advice, it’s worth recalling that RBS was once a small retail bank, which transformed into one of the world’s largest. Then, during the GFC, went from a position of global leadership to a basket case – a failure which almost brought down the entire UK financial system. The bank’s collapse was only prevented by 45 billion pounds of taxpayer support and several hundred billions more in government loans.

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A tale of . . . measuring the Emperor’s clothes

Over and over, around the globe, we hear a rising chorus of people asking – What is real and what is fiction? With a background in unemployed people’s organisations, I’ve long been aware that official unemployment rates and job creation numbers are made-up, with governments and statistical agencies ‘massaging’ and distorting the figures for political purposes. At a forum I attended last year, Victor Quirk, from the Centre of Full Employment and Equity at the University of Newcastle, estimated the actual unemployment rate in Australia at close to double the official number. Unemployment rates are among a range of measuring tools used to help maintain and reproduce the fictions of capitalism. These figures, statistics, and valuations are not objective truths, but creations reflecting widespread power struggles within, against, and outside of capital.

Economists tend to imagine an artificial world of graphs, tables and calculations, ‘invisible hands’, debts that are assets, and endless ‘growth’ that in fact destroys. Some have developed elaborate theories to calculate the finance industry’s ‘investments in investments’, ‘bets about bets’ and ‘bets about bets about bets’. However, these theories are mostly fables – tales told to keep us working and help us sleep. Economic theory and analysis relies on information provided by governments, banks, ratings agencies, and other mainstream institutions. Yet none of these can be trusted.

In 2007, economist Li Keqiang, currently China’s prime minister, let the American ambassador in on a secret: China’s GDP figures are “man-made” and therefore “unreliable.” He explained that most of the country’s economic data should be used for “reference only.” More recently, political economist Minq Li’s latest book, China and the 21st Century Crisis, discusses the untrustworthiness of liofficial Chinese economic data, while still relying on this data to develop his analysis of contemporary capitalist crisis. As we commonly find, in the absence of accurate information, people have limited options. It’s widely recognised that when pondering China’s economy (on which so much now hinges) ‘we can’t trust the numbers’. Comparisons are sometimes drawn between the Chinese economy and that of the Soviet Union. Although it was widely understood the Soviet government made-up many of their economic indicators, and was totally deluded about the political/social situation, it still came as a major shock when this ‘super power’ collapsed.

Since the GFC, spending by the Chinese government has been a crucial factor in ‘combating global economic crisis’. It’s reported that between 2008 and 2014 available new loans in China rose by more than $US20 trillion. Apparently the Government has also spent over a trillion dollars on directly stimulating the economy. Yet fear of serious economic decline in ‘the world’s factory’ persists. Today, there’s little confidence Chinese policymakers know what they’re doing and growing concern that the Communist Party leadership are out of their depth is helping to destabilise ‘the markets’ and global economy.

In the world’s largest economy (apparently/for now) there’s a similar story. In 2008, the US government reportedly spent around a trillion dollars to stem systemic collapse. At the same time, as the finance industry went into crisis, in order to ‘save’ companies like General Electric, General Motors, Bank of America and Citi Group, the US Federal Reserve (as the lender of last resort) provided massive loans to corporations of all kinds. These corporations, like the banks, were ‘bailed out’, yet recession and economic instability continued. At the end of last year, a decision by the US Federbailoutal Reserve to very slightly raise interest rates was meant to tell a story of confidence in US economic recovery. The fragility of this gambit was indicated by the Reserve’s statement that this measure was made partially so it could be rapidly reversed if things started getting worse. So far this year, ‘the market’s’ vote on US and Chinese political/economic narratives has been one of ‘no confidence’.

Just an opinion . . .

Among the key players in the world’s financial architecture are the main credit ratings agencies – Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch. They exist to assess the creditworthiness of corporations, institutions and countries who borrow money. Their ratings are meant to reveal how likely debts are to be paid back. A high rating indicates that a borrower’s finances are secure. But, surprise, surprise, the ratings are a fiction.

In 2001, it wasn’t until right before Enron declared bankruptcy that the agencies began to downgrade its credit rating. In 2007, the agencies rated Iceland’s banks at AAA (the highest possible) despite them borrowing $120 billion – ten times the size of the nation’s economy. Within a year, the banks had collapsed. And, in 2008, investment banks Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch were all highly rated just before they went bankrupt.

The ratings agencies are paid by those they’re meant to be assessing and rely on the accounts provided by them. They also cover-up and disguise problems their clients wish to hide, they miscalculate, misinform, and fail to appraise the ‘real’ situation of corporations, banks, and other financial institutions. Ratings agencies have made billions of dollars giving high ratings to fraudsters. In fact, the higher the rating given the more the agencies receive in payment. While Governments, investors, and ‘the market’, place great store on these ratings – the agencies themselves say they “are just their opinions and shouldn’t be relied on.” According to Standard and Poor’s, their ratings “should not be viewed as assurances of credit quality or exact measures of the likelihood of default.” Instead, the ratings should be considered a “commentary”.

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None-the-less, these ratings have a direct impact on ‘the market’ and the wider economy. They are tremendously powerful ‘opinions’ and ‘commentaries’, with the potential for a downgrade to destroy a corporation, help bring down a government, or destabilise a country. The agency’s ratings are repeatedly used as weapons by ‘market forces’ against states seeking to challenge the power of capital. At the same time, the agencies are key players in covering-up the crimes of the rich and powerful. Along with accounting firms, these key capitalist measuring instruments are sophisticated story tellers, weaving tales of punishment and discipline for most of us, and a web of lies for their corporate pay masters.

Not the whole story . . . ?

As David Harvey indicated above, much of the global economy is secretive, ‘hidden’ or in ‘the shadows’. This is commonly acknowledged through terms like the ‘grey economy’, which includes the incalculable and common array of ‘cash in hand’ payments. The size of this ‘informal economy’ is impossible to measure. It’s guessed the ‘grey economy’ in ‘developing countries’ is about 40% of their official GDP. In some nations it’s the largest sector of the economy. In ‘developed countries’ it’s said to be around 20% of GDP. There’s also ‘shadow banking’ – which includes financial institutions not subject to ‘regulatory oversight’, as well as the unregulated activities of supposedly ‘regulated’ institutions. The size of this part of the global economy has been estimated at $20 trillion. Then there’s the so-called ‘black economy’, which is also immeasurable. You only have to consider a part of it, illegal drugs, thought to be about 1% of total global trade, to grasp the importance of this economy.

As well, any story about the hidden or ‘black’ economies should acknowledge the open secret that ‘behind every great fortune is a great crime’. Anyone familiar with the development of capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism will have an appreciation of how they were founded on the theft of land and property, the plundering of environments, horrendous violence, cheating, swindling, the enslavement of millions, the robbery of people’s lives and freedom. And this history, written in blood, hasn’t ended.

In another blog post, The Last Delegation, I wrote about the rise of the new bourgeois in Russia during the 1990s. As the Soviet Union disintegrated, traditional crime areas, such as robbery, illegal drugs, gambling and prostitution, were thriving and those able to were enriching themselves. The black market ‘mafia’ were making off with whatever they could get their hands on, while cunning members of the ruling elite were using their privileges to become richer and to secure their futures. The up-and-coming oligarchs emerged as well-connected entrepreneurs, getting rich through connections to business or political networks, as they plundered state resources and robbed the populace as part of the new ‘free market’ economy.

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A poster I bought in Moscow in 1990 reads; ‘Shadowy economics, corruption and criminality – woven in an organised manner. We have to organise to squash and untangle them and pull them out by the roots!’

During this period, as James Petras explains; “Over a hundred billion dollars a year was laundered by the mafia oligarchs in the principal banks of New York, London, Switzerland, Israel and elsewhere – funds which would later be recycled in the purchase of expensive real estate in the USA, England, Spain, France as well as investments in British football teams, Israeli banks and joint ventures in minerals.” The winners of the Russian gang wars “followed up by expanding operations to a variety of new economic sectors, investments in the expansion of existing facilities (especially in real estate, extractive and consumer industries) and overseas. Under President Putin, the gangster-oligarchs consolidated and expanded – from multi-millionaires to billionaires, to multi-billionaires. From young swaggering thugs and local swindlers, they became the ‘respectable’ partners of American and European multinational corporations”, as they continued to ‘diversify’ into stock speculation, banking, finance and company buyouts. Petras details a similar process with the rise of the ‘new bourgeois’ in China, Brazil, Mexico, India, and more. Many others have investigated the legal and illegal crimes of the ruling class in different parts of the world.

What can we believe in . . . ?

For those who’ve managed to read up to this point, you may be asking – how long does this story go for? While many people across the globe are saying; ‘What can we believe in?’ ‘There’s nothing we can trust anymore’.

It’s not surprising that numerous pundits now believe ‘extend and pretend’ is a confidence trick whose days are numbered. Systemic collapse has been forestalled by government cuts, intervention, bailouts, stimulus packages, interest rate and currency manipulation, and so on, seeking to guarantee future profits. Yet, the continuing refusal of people to pay their debts, to accept austerity, and to work harder for less, (along with the vicious battles between different capitalist gangs and the ruins left in their wake) sees fictitious capital continually expand, a range of economic, political, environmental and social crises intensify, the system’s crimes become more apparent, and claims of growth and recovery revealed as fantasies.

Throughout The Big Short there’s a consideration of value – of what things are really worth. The movie appears to centre on the value of money, stocks, houses, superannuation, pensions, wages, salaries, and dividends, as this is what people are often preoccupied with when worrying about financial crisis. Yet behind these concerns are deeper questions about what we value and how we value. How do we value life? How do we value each other? What are our relationships worth? How can we treasure the environment? How long can we put off making difficult decisions – seeking to avoid harsh realities? Are we reaching the conclusion of ‘extend and pretend’?

The future is unwritten . . .

Nick Southall

Punk – prostitute, queer, beginner, worthless person, youth, petty criminal, inspired by punk rock, a style or movement characterised by the adoption of aggressively unconventional and often bizarre or shocking clothing, hairstyles, etc., and the defiance of social norms.

During the late 1970’s and through the 1980’s, the Illawarra region of New South Wales felt the impact of major economic restructuring, mass sackings and unemployment. Thousands were forced from their jobs and many youth faced ‘no future’. As unemployment and poverty in the city of Wollongong grew, so did a new youth culture – punk. Punk exploded into popular consciousness with the Sex Pistols, their 1977 hit single ‘God Save the Queen’ and their album ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’. The Pistol’s ‘Anarchy in the UK’ tour of England with The Clash made both bands infamous, as city after city banned their gigs and conservative politicians and media commentators denounced them. The Pistols and The Clash were strongly influenced by revolutionary politics and their anti-authoritarian, anarchic spit in the face of the establishment struck a powerful chord among marginalised youth, not just in Britain, but also in far-away Wollongong.

Today, it’s hard to appreciate how incendiary punk was at this time of intensifying economic, political and social crisis. For both supporters and opponents it was like throwing a match into a tinderbox. ‘God Save the Queen’ was banned by the BBC and the U.K. Independent Broadcasting Authority. It’s widely believed the song was considered so inflammatory that the BBC and the British Phonographic Institute refused to allow it to reach number one.  None-the-less, it was officially number two on the charts during the week that marked 25 years since the Queen’s coronation. Described by the contemporary BBC as “a clarion call for dispossessed youth . . . its energy and sense of dissatisfaction sum up perfectly what it felt like to be young and alienated in 1977.”

With my parents and younger brother, I spent six months in England during 1977. Returning to the old country, after three years in Australia, ‘a sense of dissatisfaction’ is a serious understatement of how I felt. Rather than finding an idealised past that never really existed, the U.K. was instead miserable and depressed. Thatcherism and the National Front were on the rise. The intimidating presence of ‘boot boys’ and ‘boot girls’ personified the violent reality of widespread poverty, crisis and decline. There was little escape from the sense of foreboding, that something even more brutal was coming. ‘No future.’

 The idea that young people had ‘no future’ became increasingly common, and back in Australia in 1978, at the age of sixteen, I thought ‘fuck this shit’, fled Wollongong High school, and went on the dole. I was miserable, frustrated and angry. Punk offered me a way of breaking out of what I experienced as the suffocating living death of mainstream society and of connecting with other people who were rebellious. I was pissed off about my own situation, being a high school drop-out, poor, and unemployed, and I was enraged about the state of society. I wanted to revolt, rise up with other people who were sick of the way things were, and change the world. Punk felt powerful, dangerous, and to many of those in power it was considered a serious threat to the status quo.

The Ramones were the first overseas punk band I saw perform live, when they came to Wollongong in 1980. Playing 30 songs in 55 minutes of non-stop, high-energy, fun filled rock, they had those packed into Wollongong Leagues Club frantically pogoing up and down on the spot until exhausted. The Clash was my favourite band, because they combined punk music with serious political messages, while campaigning against war, racism, and Nazis. They toured Australia in 1982 and I used most of my fortnightly dole money on tickets for my then girlfriend Chris and myself. Much of my remaining cash covered our train fares to Sydney to see the band play at the Capitol Theatre. Attending the concert was our Valentine’s Day treat and we loved it. The whole gig was amazing and at the half-way mark an Indigenous activist gave a rousing speech.

As a young punk I was excited about the politicisation of music and youth culture, while being concerned about the contradictions of punk; the degeneration of bands like the Sex Pistols, the scene’s commercialisation, and whether punk would be reduced to a spectacle. A review of the first Clash gig in Sydney described the experience of a local punk friend of mine while he queued to get inside – “On the other side of Campbell Street, the cops are climbing out of their cars. As they emerge, a few sneers and jeers celebrate their arrival. Crossing the road, the cops move into the crowd and single out a few punks. Wrestling them back to the cars, they slam them into the bonnets, restraining them before loading them into the paddy wagons. In their second floor dressing room, oblivious to the scenes outside, the Clash are preparing to take to the stage. As the first of the paddy wagons pulls out, the kids in the back claw at the grill, screaming “Riot! Riot!” Nobody leaves the queue. The driver deliberately slams his brakes hard, sending bodies careering across the back of the van. And then he changes gears and drives off. The rest of the cops pull out as quickly as they’d arrived. As a tactical show of strength, the exercise has been successful.”

Of the other main punk bands around at this time, I especially enjoyed the Dead Kennedys and Crass, who attempted to push the militant politics of punk to their limits. I missed out on seeing the Dead Kennedy’s when they toured in 1983 as I was broke and couldn’t manage to sneak into their gig. But, from the same year, I still have my copy of Crass’s most infamous single ‘How Does It Feel To Be The Mother of 1,000 Dead?’,  described by a Daily Mirror columnist as “the most revolting and unnecessary record I have ever heard” and “a vicious and obscene attack on Margaret Thatcher’s motives for engaging in the Falklands war.” The band sold tens of thousands of the record, produced on their own independent label, making it the number one indie song in the UK. Soon questions about the band were being raised in the British Parliament and a Government MP attempted to prosecute them under the U.K.’s Obscene Publications Act.

Wollongong’s punk scene began in the later part of the 1970s. It grew out of other local alternative anti-establishment subcultures, as well as the influence of the U.K. and U.S. punk scenes. Wollongong punks borrowed aspects of overseas punk’s music, dress, behaviour and attitudes and added to them with their own styles. Our punk inspired bands incorporated local social influences and addressed local issues, mixing with various alternative subcultures more so than in many other places. In Sydney, punks, mods and skinheads tended to stay apart and would often fight each other. Here in Wollongong there weren’t that many of us; so we tended to stick together for protection and solidarity.

At first, punks mostly hung out at the Wollongong Hotel or the Oxford pub – the Pox, as we called it, was the underage pub, where kids could go and get drunk without being hassled about their age. It was also a place where drugs were easily accessible, it had an outlaw culture, and at times they’d be alternative bands performing. Then we began attending ACME music co-op’s monthly gigs, at the Ironworkers’ Club on Crown Street. These were organised by a collective of local alternative musicians, for local bands who had nowhere else to play, and for people who weren’t into the usual pub bands. The same venue was used for ‘Revolution Rock’ gigs and later by the Wollongong Out of Workers’ Union (WOW) for benefit concerts featuring punk, skinhead, and new wave bands. It was here that local bands like Visitor, Sunday Painters, Nik Nok Nar, Young Home Buyers, the Rezistors and the Alternators got their early gigs and where local punks could hang out together with little fear of being beaten up. The university was another locus of youthful rebellion and Thursday night gigs at the Uni Bar were a popular haunt for punks and new wave music fans.

For most punks the idea of D.I.Y., having your own style, rebelling against and rejecting established conventions and behaviours was the key to being punk. It was a culture for poor people who couldn’t afford to buy a lot of stuff and for those who rejected the glossy mass produced crap that was usually on offer. Most local punks were unemployed or low paid workers and collectively they created their own culture as an assertion of social realism against superficiality. They formed bands, organised gigs, put out records, designed posters, and made their own clothes. Punk was a critique of the dominant culture and consumerism, an expose and subversion of the music industry, and a rejection of commercialism and elitism. You didn’t have to play or sing well, have flash clothes, or expensive equipment, and punk tended to break down the separation of band and audience.

punk 3

Thanks to the cultural empowerment set off by punk the audience one week could form bands and be playing the next week. Punk’s message was – you can try anything – and what you do, what you create, doesn’t have to be done well, or be perfect, just give it a go. This was the message that inspired me to have a go at playing an instrument, to help form the Alternators (the idea with this band being that the members would alternate and we would also alternate what we did in the band), to help write lyrics for songs (such as C.A.P.I.T.A.L.) and deliver some political spoken word to the band’s free form accompaniment. We also helped to organise political benefit gigs with bands like Mutant Death from Sydney, who released a single called Priority One: Pigs Bum, criticising the Federal Governments employment policies. The song used cut-up excerpts from a fiery on-air exchange between Prime Minister Bob Hawke and myself recorded during a special nationwide radio talk-back on youth issues.

At this time, Wollongong was a very masculine society, still steeped in traditionalist blue collar values. As part of the punk revolution, and reflecting the growth and power of contemporary radical feminism, punk challenged traditional women’s roles in popular music. Punk women flouted musical and social conventions, often by being tough, aggressive, disobedient, rude, and by making themselves look ‘slutty’ or ‘ugly’ and confrontational. The first record my girlfriend Chris and I bought together, which we considered our relationship’s theme song, was the anthemic call for liberation written by female punk icon Poly Styrene and performed by her and the X-Ray Spex.

Wollongong has a long history of militant class struggle, which has created a strong sense of community and spawned a high level of social activism focused on the problems of the working poor and the unemployed. So, it’s no surprise that Wollongong’s punk scene was often overtly political and anti-capitalist. Here the individual and collective manifestations of punk were intertwined from the start. As joblessness grew and political struggles around unemployment swept the city, punk’s focus on ‘do it yourself’ rebellion, individual autonomy, and rejection of capitalist consumption, increasingly mixed with more traditional class struggle.

Unemployed people, many of whom were young punks, established their own union, the Wollongong Out of Workers’ Union (WOW). Some of us had previously been involved in punk graffiti group YAPO (Young and Pissed Off) and for many years one of my YAPO contributions remained sprayed on the walls outside the Wollongong Social Security office – ‘Make BHP Pay!’

YAPO

As a founding member of WOW, I was keen to see the Union take radical action and confront those in power. Happily I wasn’t alone. Soon after being established, WOW members broke into and squatted a house in Market Street directly opposite the Department of Social Security. Along with about twenty other WOW members I made this my home. With community support, the house became the Union’s offices for the next six years.

punk 2

For many years, WOW had a high and fairly positive public profile, despite often being seen as a ‘bunch of punks’. As a union of the unemployed, WOW embraced a wide variety of ‘outlaw’ cultures and Union members included petty criminals, drug addicts, prostitutes and the mentally ill, contributing to our notoriety. The ideology and practice of many of WOW’s most active members was a combination of contemporary street level punk, communist and anarchist culture and philosophy. While campaigning against unemployment and for job creation, WOW’s militant struggles and D.I.Y. projects gave people a sense they were contributing to creating a better society outside the realm of wage-labour. Reflecting punk’s rejection of capitalist exploitation and alienation, some WOW members’ were uninterested in traditional work, seeking other ways to make our labour socially useful, aiming to take control of our own lives and give them alternative purposes and meanings.

punk 4      WOW members with the Union’s Log of Claims outside Federal Parliament in 1983.

To a large extent, punk culture in WOW was a way of separating ourselves from the rest of society, of showing our difference, while at the same time having something, apart from poverty and unemployment, in common with each other. It was a way of demonstrating our rejection of society in a very visual way. Regardless of what we were doing, even if we were just walking down the street, people could see we were anti-establishment. Punk was both a response to, and a dramatisation of, increasing crisis, unemployment and poverty. Punks dressed confrontationally, presenting themselves as anarchic proletarian ‘degenerates’ and outcasts, spectacles of aggression, frustration and anxiety, at war with capitalist culture.

My own punk style, at various times, included wearing an army jacket with red insignia and communist badges, a padlocked chain around my neck, dyed scarlet hair, a razor blade necklace, torn up, blood splattered, local and overseas punk band T-shirts, ripped and dirty stove pipe jeans rolled up to expose cherry red doc marten boots, and large safety pins as earrings, pushed through my ears while I was high on pain killers. Other members of WOW sported similar get-ups, studded leather jackets, ripped and patched op-shop clothing, studded belts and bracelets, pieces of clothing held together with safety pins, suit jackets, flannelette shirts, a range of boots, patches, badges, hair colours, spiked, shaved haircuts and sculpted mohawks. Many, displayed various forms of self-harm, slashed arms, bruises and signs of neglect.

punk 1

WOW’s punk culture was the clearest manifestation of some of its member’s rejection of the traditional role of workers, to do waged work, as they attempted to sabotage themselves as commodities. Many WOW members defined themselves against the conservative sections of the union movement and developed an oppositional culture and alternative value systems. There were debates and discussions within WOW about the impact of punk and the effect it was having on our relationship with the general community. Concern was expressed, within the Union, that punk was an obstacle to developing ‘working class unity and co-operation’, recognising that punk and work refusal were a rejection of labour movement traditions based on ideas of the ‘dignity of labour’. But those in WOW who attempted to curb its punk image found themselves in a minority.

Being involved in punk and being involved in WOW was thrilling. You just had to be around the punk scene and the Union’s members to feel the excitement and energy. Both punk and WOW helped young people feel like they could do all the things they wanted to do, that anything was possible. They both changed the way we felt about ourselves and the world around us. We didn’t have to wait around for things to happen, or just be passive victims, we could fight back, sweep the past aside, and create our own way of life. In response to the prediction of ‘No future’, we constructed our own futures, while hoping that time was on our side. It felt as if we had the power to create radical social change – we just had to use it.

Thirty seven years ago, in 1979, I bought a compilation album of punk and ‘new wave’ songs, which included the Mekons’ song ‘Where Were You?’ On New Year’s Eve 2015/2016, some of my younger punk friends released a CD which includes a wonderful cover version of the same song. As if this wasn’t glorious enough, they also released a video for the song which features the dancing son of some other younger punk friends. The future is now and punks not dead!

Nick Southall

Sources

Callaghan, M., & Southall, N., 1985, WOW Dance, Redback Graphix, Wollongong.

Callaghan, M., & Pusell, S., 1984, Raise the Dole Dance, Redback Graphix, Wollongong.

Clash gig review, 1982, Rock Australia Magazine, Sydney.

Dilemas, 2015, Where were you?, YNTPM Records, https://dilemmasdilemmas.bandcamp.com/releases

Hebdige, D., 2003, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Routledge, London.

Pusell, S., 1983, WOW members with the Union’s Log of Claims, Wollongong.

Pusell, S, & Donarski, C., 1984, What Shall I Wear Tonight?, Wollongong.

Savage, J., 1991, England’s Dreaming; Sex Pistols and Punk Rock, Faber and Faber, London.

 

Loving Christmas?

Posted: December 22, 2015 in Uncategorized

Christmas-Love

Regular readers of Revolts Now will know that I occasionally write about the use of love in advertising. In my post Advertising Love I discuss how every year we see debates about the meaning of Christmas and its increasing commercialisation. For many people Christmas is less about celebrating the birth of Jesus, or giving and receiving presents, and more about love actually (and Love Actually). Yet, many of us feel the tensions of the festive season, when we try to enjoy some time with family, friends and loved ones, only to find ourselves stressed and unhappy. Christmas is both touted and appreciated as a time of celebration, joy, sharing, communing, caring, happiness and hope. It’s also understood and experienced as a time of mourning, over-consumption, grief, loneliness, sadness and regret.

I’m interested in love as an economic, social and political power and how advertising demonstrates both the importance of love to people and to capital; how commercials express, subvert, co-opt, harness and exploit love. Today many commodities are marketed as a way of giving or gaining love, or of showing that we care. The purchase of some product, we are told, will make us loved or demonstrate our love for others.

Love can be deployed as a constructive tool and utilised in destructive ways. Last month, following the attacks in Paris, I wrote about the importance of love in countering terror and war. A few weeks later, as much of the world again focused on Paris, to see how bad the outcome of the United Nations Climate Change Conference would be, those seeking to thwart a more progressive environmental agenda demonstrated how limited perceptions of love, and general anxieties about people’s commitment to each other, can be harnessed to sell romantic corporate illusions of a green future.

SADLY THE VIDEO PREVIOUSLY POSTED HERE APPEARS TO HAVE BEEN REMOVED BY SHELL CORPORATION.

This year, for the first time, my youngest daughter is spending Christmas away from home, in the UK. As she prepares for a Christmas of festive knitted jumpers and the possibility of snow (even though December temperatures in London have been warmer than July’s), she may have seen this popular British Christmas ad, for the John Lewis department stores, highlighting the distance many people feel between them, especially at Christmas. It also speaks to more widespread concerns about the planet/society and our desire to reach out to others.

And perhaps this year’s most popular UK Christmas commercial is ‘Mog’s Christmas Calamity’.

When such disasters befall people, this scenario is fairly common – their friends, family, neighbours and communities step-in to care and share. To a certain extent the ‘Mogs’ ad is a light-hearted expression of common concerns about the level of poverty in austerity Britain – with its message that ‘Christmas is for sharing’, as part of Sainsbury’s ‘Live Well For Less’ campaign. The company’s ‘Live Well for Less’ website begins by stating; “These are tough times for family budgets, no question about it.” The site also asks – “Do you love sharing stories?” – encouraging customers to upload videos of themselves reading from the book ‘Mog’s Christmas Calamity’ (in order to assist Sainsbury’s marketing campaign) while explaining that; “Telling stories can ignite imaginations and build bonds between parents and children.”

As indicated at the end of the ‘Mogs’ advert, as well as promoting themselves as supporting family and community ties,  Sainsbury’s is also sponsoring the charity ‘Save the Children’, reminding us that among the most prominent advertisers at this time of year are the major charities addressing poverty, homelessness, family breakdown, etc. The traditional economic exchange associated with the purchase of a commodity has increasingly moved into a wider range of spheres through the promotion of ‘ethical consumption’, solidarity, care and love. Attempts by apparently socially concerned or social justice-oriented businesses to reconfigure purchasing as a communal act, and positioning consumer choice as a site of responsibility, are becoming more common in today’s marketplace, as states promote ‘self-reliance’ and corporations seek to position themselves as interested in, and committed to, love.

Sainsbury’s 2014 Christmas ad won a ‘Marketing New Thinking Award’ for ‘Creative Excellence’. The message of this advertisment was “It’s not just about the gifts, it’s about who you share them with.” The commercial re-told the story of Christmas Day 1914 (on its one hundred year anniversary) when British and German soldiers laid down their arms and gathered between the trenches to share greetings and treats, exchange mementos and even play a game of football. Sales of the chocolate bar that featured in the commercial, combined with shopper donations, raised seven million pound for the Royal British Legion charity (supporting military veterans) and helped Sainsbury’s climb into second position in the British grocery sector. I wonder if they would have considered running a similar advert this year, appealing to widespread desires for peace, after the recent decision by the British Parliament to begin bombing Syria?

In the past few weeks, it’s been interesting to see popular use of the nativity story to highlight the plight of refugees and the need to shelter and support them. This grass roots social media campaign stands in stark contrast to the annual flurry of ‘we can’t celebrate Christmas anymore because of Muslims’ urban myths. Meanwhile, the deceptively self-depreciating and self-aware advert below instead uses the nativity story to portray the commercialisation of Christmas and the love/worship of commodities.

Clearly it’s not “just a bag” – it’s a powerful symbol. And who doesn’t love a beautiful bag? Even if it only promises short-term gratification and increased status, rather than eternal salvation. Of course, the commercial is humorous because it speaks a certain truth – that Christmas is no longer centred on Jesus, or on each other, but on what we buy.

Michael Hill jewelers are consistent users of love to sell their products, as commodities centred on relationship, displays of wealth, and gift giving. In this advert, from their long-term ‘We’re for Love’ campaign, they declare their commitment to a socially progressive view of love, where ‘everyone gets their fair share’. The commercial stresses that the company’s pieces of jewellery are much more than precious metal and jewels – they are declarations and symbols of love. Here the advertisers disguise the quest for profits with an appreciation of the value of love – highlighting the importance of moving beyond an appeal to individualistic yearnings for economic wealth and status towards collective desires for a diversity of deeper and richer social connections.

One of the world’s major advertisers, Apple corporation, spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year and employs some of the leading marketeers, psychologists and sociologists just to promote their phones. Consider the sophistication of this Apple Christmas ad, and how it positions the iPhone at the heart of the family.

The commercial centres on familial love – playing on common concerns about family breakdown, generation gaps and alienated youth, while countering the widespread criticism that smart phones are socially isolating, alienating and debilitating. It achieves its aims by demonstrating how this is may not be the case and in fact the opposite can be true. Having one of the largest advertising budgets in the world, Apple knows that associating itself with creative and positive social relations is their optimum strategy – love sells.

And what would Christmas be without a special song about hope, peace and love? So, this is Apple’s offering for Christmas 2015.

Clever advertising reflects and mobilises our emotions, our dreams, our fears, and our wishes. The products of Apple’s sweatshop labour can help us create a heart-warming Christmas tune, bring friends and families together, and communicate our common hopes for peace and love. But we are meant to ignore the immense exploitation and destruction of people and the environment involved in the manufacture of the corporation’s merchandise, and who benefits most.

During Christmas we are often faced with important questions about being together, how we spend our time, how we value each other, as well as the nature of the things we consume; their purpose, their fate, their potential, their ability to be something more than profitable commodities, waste, or a means to address fleeting desires. For many people, Christmas is as disappointing as seeking meaning and fulfillment in the accumulation of things. Yet, while the importance of caring  relationships can be contrasted to consumerism, they need not be opposed to consumption. People’s love for each other can be facilitated by caring for and about things. These things are not necessarily superficial distractions. But what does it mean to think of the things in our world as more than objects for us to profit from, use and consume – to have deeper encounters with them and to value them in more profound ways?

The distortions imposed on love by the capitalist system shouldn’t prevent us from proclaiming its importance. Loving social relations make our lives worth living despite, against, and beyond capitalism. A communal culture of sharing and caring can rebuild fragile relationships, communities and environments, weaving supportive networks and movements. These networks and movements are produced out of recognition that the widespread hunger and search for love, for meaningful connections to ourselves, to each other, to life, cannot be met by capitalism. Rather than buying into the failed system so widely promoted at Christmas, we can instead find joy, as we share the gift of love.

Nick Southall