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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Small Slip, Big White Lie

Here is how historic falsehood is constructed. Just read Mykola Riabchuk:

"“Would anyone anywhere in the world be willing to take a truncheon in the head for the sake of a trade agreement with the United States?”, asks Tymothy Snyder acerbically in his article “A Way Out for Ukraine?” knowing the answer perfectly well.

Many Ukrainians, indeed, got truncheons in their heads in the past two weeks, as they were protesting on the streets of Kyiv against their government’s last-moment decision to abstain from signing the Association Agreement with the EU. Timothy Snyder is well aware that it is not the Agreement per se that mobilized the protesters but their hope for a “normal life in a normal country” which the agreement had envisaged and come to symbolize."

First of all, the government of Ukraine technically didn't "abstain" from signing, but postponed it. Even the EU Parliament's monitoring mission, not exactly an un-interested party in all this, says so, quite clearly. I really don't want to come across as splitting hairs, but abstaining and postponing are two different things. "Postponement" contains the implicit promise of a signing later. "Abstaining" doesn't. Could possibly signal a strategy that is slightly different than what is ascribed to it. Or not, who knows. And since this is about diplomacy--and since diplomacy is precisely about splitting hairs in this way--perhaps one might wish to pay attention to small details like this.

The breaking news at 1:30 pm EST on December 12, 2013, is that the EU and the government of Ukraine have agreed to "work out a road map on a deal" so that Ukraine can "sign" the agreement "soon". In other words, news of the death of the association agreement were greatly exaggerated. The reason for this, in my humble opinion, is that both the EU and the economic and political elites of Ukraine--described by Ivan Krastev as the "no-nonsense oligarchs who keep their eggs in at least two baskets"--have something to gain from such a deal. With the protests at EU-Dependence Square, the government might even be able to make it look like it considered the opinion of the Maidan. (The only group of people for whom the deal, in its latest released form, is bad news is the majority, the people of Ukraine--assuming, that is, that they want to live reasonably well and derive at least a modest benefit from the resources of their own economy (e.g., its quality soil, its military strategic location on the north shore of the Black Sea, its economic-strategic location between the EU and Russia, whatever has remained of its industries, etc.,) and not suffer the textbook consequences of trade-, finance-, investment- and technological dependency on its 40 times bigger and approximately 8 times wealthier neighbor. Given that the "alternative" is another neighbor, also considerably more powerful and perceptibly richer, for Ukraine, this is a perfect "lose-lose" situation. But I am repeating myself.) As EU Enlargement Commissioner Füle reports, now even Ukraine's financial crisis and the IMF has been brought in to pressure the government of Ukraine.

There is of course no question that the as-yet unsigned, perhaps-to-be-revised-or-tweaked-or-re-crafted agreement had come to symbolize something, and I have not doubt that that something has to do with what the protesters imagine as "normal life," as Mr Riabchuk puts it. What exactly it came to mean for others, e.g., the rest of Ukrainians, is unknown and, if you read Mr Riabchuk (or many other commentators, let me abstain from--or postpone? 8) --mentioning them all), apparently sort of irrelevant. 

In other words, the protesters are now standing for Ukraine as a whole. And that is a really important geopolitical accomplishment. That has been,  as I have argued it a good 10-15 years ago or so, the well known synecdochic "representational" pattern of the EU's enlargement process in general (as well as the "colored revolutions," etc.)  To what extent the crowds in the street actually reflect what "Ukrainians," at large, think, or even just what the majority think (as in a democracy) is completely unclear from this. In fact the main rhetorical purpose of this synecdoche is obscuring, making it more difficult to even ask that question. We shall probably never know. 

A corrupt government in a face-off with an emotionally fired-up, protesting crowd. Technically speaking, both are, more or less equally, un-accountable. At the very best, we see the pattern, described in the case of the post-state-socialist context, as well as elsewhere, as the well-known paradox of the creation of a democratic system of accountability via undemocratic and un-accountable means. There is something really sad about the fact that we are forced to observe the unfolding of more or less the same, sad and, from the perspective of social justice, fairness and, indeed, democracy, highly problematic, drama a full one generation after the collapse of state socialism. In fact, this might well be a signal that there is a little more going on here than surviving old authoritarian-state-socialist-nostalgic regimes vs. crowds with democratic desires. I'm not sure what it is, but there is more to it somehow.

The crowd may well succeed in overthrowing the government, who knows. --And what happens then? What will the "will of the people" say about power in a genuinely democratic Ukraine? Do we know that? Do we know that Ukraine's new, presumably democratically elected, future leaders will be more democratic, (even more pro-EU) and less corrupt than the current ones? Have we seen such a "clean" democracy at approximately 60% of the world mean GDP/cap? Is it possible to build a "western democracy" in a society that is burdened with the task of facing such basic need? I suspect that nobody really has any idea. This is absolutely not the fault the protesters--they do what protesters do: protest, demand, overthrow. Great.

But the intellectuals, the analysts, the pundits that have so easily slipped into a position of "supporting the people" without asking specifically who "the people" are and what they might want, let alone what they need--they ought to have a different perspective. It would be kind of nice if somebody could be cool-headed, realistic, etc. Somebody really needs to think about the future. Or, maybe I'm overrating the potential usefulness of analytical reasoning and dispassionate observation.

Finally, I would like to challenge the author, or anybody, really, to show where exactly (page number, paragraph, sentence, etc.) the draft association "agreement [with the EU] had envisaged" (my italics) "normal life in a normal country" for Ukraine. (I would even appreciate if he could spell out just what exactly he means by "envisaging.") Short of that, there is the slight but really annoying possibility that this apparently tiny slip becomes a big white lie (pun intended), hidden in the body of a fairly complex sentence of a pseudo-debate with a US historian, will turn out to be a colossal geopolitical deception, and a contribution to the destruction of not "just" the physical well-being and life of the protesters--which is apparently nobody's concern--but also the future of Ukraine.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Terms of Ukraine's EU-Dependency

The main provisions of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement are available online. (I find it amusing that, in the big hullabaloo about the drama of the refusal to sign and the protests, it does not seem to have occurred to anybody to actually look at it--at least I haven't found any analysis on the internet.)  These truly are just the "main provisions"--the full version is apparently 1500 pages long (and, as far as I know, unavailable online). Here are a few basic features of the condensed version, just so that we see what it is that the protests and the diplomatic wrangling are all about.

A key aspect of the agreement is establishment of something called the "Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area" (DCFTA). Everything is pretty much secondary to this. So, what is DCFTA, how would it work?

Tariffs are key tools in the hands of poorer and weaker economies in their relations with richer and more powerful ones. (That Ukraine is considerably poorer and weaker than the EU should be obvious. How much poorer and weaker? Well, according to Angus Maddison's estimates, at the latest time point for which he offers data (2008), the weight of the Ukrainian economy was approximately forty times less in terms of economic weight than the European Union. To see their trajectories between 1990 and 2008, along with Russia, click here.)

As the EU's own publication suggests, the business linkages between the EU and Ukraine are quite skewed already. Ukraine exports EUR 14.6 billion worth of goods to the EU and imports EUR 23.8 billion, producing a 9.2 billion trade imbalance. In the area of investment, the imbalance is outright grotesque: EUR 2 billion from Ukraine, EUR 23.8 billion from the EU to Ukraine (resulting in a fairly breathtaking, EUR 21.9 billion, imbalance). Given those figures, even without the DCFTA, the economic linkage structure between the EU and Ukraine offers itself as a textbook study in external trade and investment dependence.

The draft agreement is absolutely adamant that the key purpose of this exercise is removal of all remaining tariffs and other trade barriers for EU capital:

"The DCFTA, linked to the broader process of legislative approximation will contribute to further economic integration with the European Union’s Internal Market. This includes the elimination of almost all tariffs and barriers in the area of trade in goods, the provision of services, and the flow of investments (especially in the energy sector). Once Ukraine has taken over the relevant EU acquis, the EU will grant market access for example in areas such as public procurement or industrial goods" (p.3.)

The expected benefit of the removal of "almost all tariffs and barriers" is that "The DCFTA once in force will provide tariff cuts which will allow the economic operators of both sides to save around 750 millions euros per year in average (most of the customs duties being lifted)" (p.4.)

Given the disparities between the two would-be contracting entities (1.5 to 1 in trade, 11 to 1 in investment and 40 to 1 in economic power), it is not difficult to imagine what percentage of that EUR 750M, resulting from the lifting of trade barriers, would go to the EU and what part will go to Ukraine.

But that is, really, small change compared to the liberalization of investment. In addition to liberalizing trade, the DCFTA also envisages a significantly more open investment "climate." This is so much so that the agreement not only emphasizes investment, but even specifies what it has in mind: "investments (especially in the energy sector)" (p.3.) Just in case this was not clear enough, the document repeats, "New trade and investment opportunities will be created and competition will be stimulated" (p. 4.). But it's not over: "Through the Neighbourhood Investment Facility (NIF), to which Ukraine is eligible IFI investments could be leveraged. The NIF aims at mobilising additional funding to cover the investment needs of Ukraine for infrastructures in sectors such as transport, energy, the environment and social issues (e.g. construction of schools or hospitals)." This is all very nice, except there is absolutely no mention of the terms under which all this investment in human infrastructure would take place, who would do them, from what funds, etc. None of that.

The draft agreement also envisages that Ukraine will gradually "approximate" the acquis communautaire, i.e., the EU's body of laws and regulations. This is an apparently completely neutral and technical provision. However, beyond the technical and the apparent neutrality, there are two key points to be remembered here.

First, clearly, the diplomatic frame of the draft agreement (two contracting parties come to an agreement) is highly deceptive: What is actually going on is the full adoption of a set of external legal materials by a smaller, economically weaker, actor, under political pressure by a bigger, economically stronger and politically superordinate party. I have analyzed the structure of such a grossly asymmetrical relationship in my paper, "The Fox and the Raven. . .", available here or here with respect to Hungary's EU-accession negotiations 15 years ago. (The only caveat is that that paper focussed on a situation in which Hungary, a much smaller but considerably wealthier society than Ukraine, played the subordinate role; the case of Ukraine today is somewhat different than Hungary 15 years ago, for two additional reasons: Hungary had no other "suitor" while Ukraine is in the midst of a geopolitical tug-of-war between the EU and Russia; and, at the time when Hungary was negotiating its EU-membership, there were no previous east European entrants, today's EU includes 11 former-state-socialist east European member states, offering an ample list of precedents and an entirely different political climate.)

Second, keep in mind: In a fairly fundamental way, the main (some would probably say, the only) purpose of the EU's community laws and regulations is removal of all the institutional mechanisms that the EU's member states had developed over the centuries for the protection of their internal economies from exogenous crises, unfair competition and unforeseen fluctuations of all kinds. So, when we see a reference to adoption (or, as in the case of Ukraine, "approximation") of the acquis communautaire, we need to remember that the acquis is, by definition, a neoliberal tool, designed to increase the global sway of transnational capital based in western Europe. That's what it is, no less, no more.

Finally, there is the question of what EU-parlance calls (from a sociological perspective, quite imprecisely,) 'mobility' (i.e., the freedom of movement for not just goods, services and investment, but also of people, including the right to settle, to work, to study and to participate in democratic political life without exclusion or diminution). This is important for three reasons. First, it goes to showing the depth of the EU's commitment to embracing Ukraine as a society, not just an economic area; second, it is a deeply emotional expectation, very much on the minds of all people, especially east Europeans outside the EU, and, third, it is at this point that the EU-Ukraine rapprochement runs into the hard realities of west European quasi-racism vis-a-vis east Europeans, something I have called, in a paper entitled "Goodness Is Elsewhere. . .", the rule of European difference (available here or here, see esp. pp. 125-134).

To put it bluntly, the draft agreement is extremely vague about movement of Ukrainians in Schengen-land. Savor this language: "The importance of the introduction of a visa free travel regime for the citizens of Ukraine in due course, provided that the conditions for well-managed and secure mobility are in place is recognised in the Agreement." (pp. 1-2.) And, again: "The EU and Ukraine commit through the Association Agreement to increase their dialogue and cooperation on migration, asylum and border management. The importance of the introduction of a visa free travel regime for the citizens of Ukraine in due course, provided that the conditions for well-managed and secure mobility are in place is recognised in the Agreement" (p. 3.)

In other words, there is absolutely no commitment on part of the European Union, or its Schengen common migration management system. Even the visa requirement, currently in place, will not be lifted for a while. When exactly? Well, "in due course." This is the absolutely vaguest diplomatic language. It binds the EU to nothing, not even to easing the visa requirement, let alone abolishing it (which would allow citizens of Ukraine to travel to Europe as they please) let alone the right to stay, study, or work there. Absolutely none of that is mentioned here.

People familiar with the EU-"enlargement" process will, no doubt, point out that that--i.e., free movement of persons, the right to settle, work, etc.--will come later, with (actually, usually seven or so years after) full membership. So, that brings us to the question, what about it? What does the agreement say about full membership?

Here it is: 0.

The word "membership" appears in the document once, referring to WTO membership. This should be absolutely clear: Ukraine will not be a member of the European Union; not in the foreseeable future.

So, when the people of Ukraine are animated by the ideas of democracy, citizenship, equality, etc., and demand that their government immediately accept the agreement--this is what they are demanding. Significantly increased exposure of their economy to capital from a forty times bigger and much richer economic area; demolition of the tariff barriers that might prevent the full siphoning-off of their resources, and absolutely no promise of equality, citizenship, democracy, or even an increased freedom of movement.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Ukraine between a Rock and A Hard Place: East European Geopolitics 101

I am thinking about the ongoing pro-EU demonstrations in Kyiv. Implications for European geopolitics are enormous.

I shudder to imagine what the pro-Russia crowds could / would do once they get fired up in a similar way. (Note on November 30: I first wrote this entry before the outbreak of police violence in Kyiv.)

Just keep that in mind when thinking about Ukraine as a large and complex society, one that includes, horribile dictu, sizeable groups of people who are relatively less excited about the EU, given their social, historical, cultural, moral, familial, etc. ties to Russia, or simply because of their geographical locatedness close to the Russian border, relatively far from the EU. They, too, are citizens of Ukraine, with rights that need to be represented, respected and considered. No sane definition of democracy includes the provision that it can be suspended once we do not agree with our opponent. It is an interesting insight about the current world situation that the 'western' press feels so free to take one side in a deeply divisive issue.

A couple of tens of thousands of students and intellectuals in the street in the capital, no matter how attractive they may seem to us in the west (hint: very), do not a nation, or a political community, make. There seems to be something missing here.

What is seems not to be happening is a normal, cool-headed, balanced, and progressive conversation on the future of Ukraine as a state. Ukraine is, it is safe to say, under tremendous geopolitical pressures nowadays, coming from two sides, neither of which it can possibly disengage from. BTW, I wonder if any of the protestors actually understand that what Yanukovych didn't sign is NOT EU-membership but a deal that would have given more open access by west European capital to Ukraine's resources. Essentially, the geopolitical question at this moment is this:

 "Will west European capital or Russian capital gain the upper hand in dominating Ukraine?"

To put this in perspective, here are the global trajectories of Ukraine, Russia and the EU over the last almost-three decades:

Both suiters are significantly more powerful and richer than Ukraine. All three of them have suffered losses in global position, both in terms of global economic weight and as for wealth; for Ukraine and Russia, the drops were well-nigh catastrophic; Russia's fall was less deep, and it recovered more.

All other things equal, partial integration with the EU (i.e., provision of no-holds-barred access for west European capital to Ukraine) threatens to expose Ukraine to a major resource grab by west European interests. Integration with Russia will do the same, albeit possibly with different structural features, and benefiting Russian capital. A large part of the population of the east of Ukraine already relies on (mainly informal-sector) labor incomes from Russia, and there are no language barriers to speak of.

Based on these considerations, what kind of policy would a rational political elite pursue? I'm not quite sure--but it seems to me that a unilateral pledge of allegiance to the EU does not follow from this graph.

As for the "softer'--social, moral, cultural, etc.--aspects of membership, especially if we try to take a critical, unbiased look at the current EU, one really has to be seriously delusional to predict that Ukraine will attain full membership in the EU in our lifetime. Even Romania and Bulgaria (two ostensibly full members of the European Union) are repeatedly, and publicly, humiliated in British (and, not so brashly, but with equal consistency also in continental European) politics for the temerity of imagining that they might, possibly, maybe, who knows, perhaps, etc. . . . consider actually using their legal rights as EU citizens to seek protected, legal, equal-pay, equal-benefit, etc. work in Britain or the continental EU. Needless to say, proclamation of the free movement of labor is one thing that makes the EU exciting than an ambitious customs agreement with a free trade zone.

That people could actually think that there will be full EU-membership for Ukraine in the politically foreseeable future suggests that they have basically no idea how the EU works, what it is, etc. I don't blame them--I am sure there are deep structural reasons for that ignorance--but it is still that: ignorance, of colossal consequences.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Scheissausländer Forever

A British paper has recently carried an article (no link, not on my blog, sorry) that badmouths EU Commissioner László Andor and uses the expression "the Hungarian" as a xenophobic / EU-phobic slur to demean him. That brought back two memories for me.

I was on fieldwork for my dissertation (later: book) in Austria in 1989. At that time, the mainstream (!) newspapers there were full of stories of blunders, mistakes, faux-pas, etc., made by immigrants; part ridicule, part disdain, the usual soft fascism of the everyday. Say, somebody entered the Autobahn through an exit and drove against traffic for 2 km, stories of this kind. My point: The recurrent label of the perpetrator was: "Der Türke." This struck me as odd since, during my months in Vienna, I hardly interacted with an Austrian-Austrian: On the "street level," it appeared, everybody was a foreigner, except for one very distinguished looking gentleman who hissed "Scheissausländer" (a Viennese contribution to All-German culture, translating approximately as 'shit foreigner') at me when my backpack touched his elbow inside the hyper-romantic Tram 1 as it passed in front of Freud's favorite café.

Then came the 1989 Christmas shopping season. On November 7, 1989, the last time the day of the Russian revolution was a state holiday in Hungary, a huge proportion of Hungary's population was spending their hard-earned hard currencies in Austria, giving an unprecedented boost to the lower-third segment of the commercial world of Vienna. The star commodity at the time was a then-still-Yugoslavian-made deep freezer called Gorenje. (BTW, Gorenje freezers were also sold in Hungary, only at higher prices. Since purchases in Austria entitled Hungarians to the VAT refund while Hungary, for its part, implemented a breathtakingly stupid duty-free system for consumer imports, it was cheaper to squeeze the entire family in the family car, drive to Vienna, struggle through the lines, spend your last two years' hard-currency savings on a trivial household item, attach the newly bought freezer box on top of the family car, and drive back to Hungary than buying the same freezer in a store 5 minutes from your house in Hungary. Because of the size of the crowds and the sclerotic processing on the border, the bottleneck went from the Austro-Hungarian border to Vienna Airport--cca. 70 km.)

A large part of this commerce concentrated on one particular street, called Mariahilferstraße--re-baptized in the Viennese press, with a typically Austrian, winking-gemütlich lie, as Magyar-hilferstraße (i.e., the 'street that helps Hungarians'). Several stores had large, xeroxed signs, saying, in Hungarian:

"Magyar! Ne lopj!" ("Hungarian! Don't steal!")

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Compensation for Slavery: For Real, Maybe

At long last, a group of 14 Caribbean states have recently filed a law suit demanding compensation for slavery. This brings up a truly fascinating set of questions regarding the possibility of accounting for the crimes against humanity, and the damages--economic, political, cultural and social--caused by the brutality inflicted upon peoples of the Global South by European imperial powers as part of colonialism and after the end of the colonial era. This is a truly significant issue, and one that goes directly to the possibility of a just, fair and equitable world.

As I argued it in a paper a few years ago, I am actually quite convinced that a global redistributive system is possible, and the only reason we don't have one is that humankind has not had the fight that needs to happen in order for it to be established. That is the truly Polányian challenge for the world today.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Hawk No More

According to a brief article on the online version of the Hungarian weekly hvg, Sólyom Airways, a venture designed to privatize the flight rights of the now-defunct Malév Hungarian Airlines via "Middle Eastern" investment, stopped paying its bills, including the second month's salaries of its employees. The reason: investor disinterest.

The venture was shrouded in secrecy, and the numerous, confident announcements on part of its management about its projected, spectacular growth were met with widespread skepticism. Its CEOs included a former official in the air traffic regulation branch of the government and several businessmen who were facing a series of charges for various economic crimes. The "airline" had some basic operating license for small craft traffic, and never managed to obtain the necessary permits for passenger flights from the Hungarian authorities. Management accuse the authorities of dragging their feet.

According to the daily Népszabadság, management knew that the planned investment deal fell through as early as August, 2013, (i.e., at the time when they hired the employees whom they are unable to pay now--that is, a month later).

Friday, September 6, 2013

Questions for Habermas

Is communicative rationality, and politics based on that rationality, possible under conditions of a global panopticon? What about deliberative democracy?

What does the mass destruction of the private sphere do to the possibility of morally justified action?  Is collective action even possible any more? Can modern society exist without a constitutionally protected private/public membrane?

On an even more abstract level, can there be public sphere without private sphere? What do we have if both are gone?

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Pseudo-Naive Questions For A Political Economy of Airfares

I was in the process of making some travel arrangements (life is complicated, don't ask me). All that has brought me to some--to me, interesting--questions. Maybe it's just me, but I really don't understand some basic things here.

Here is the breakdown of a roundtrip itinerary between NYC and Europe, as reported by the online booking program I am using, a few minutes ago:

"Flight $250.00
Taxes & Fees $679.70"

I have a set of questions.

First: is this for real? A roundtrip flight, involving two legs both ways (e.g., EWR-ZRH, ZRH-BUD, or something like that, and return the same way), costs $250? If it is not real, why do airlines indicate these charges? How do they make ends meet? Has the airline business become a non-profit branch of the economy, and they are flying just to soothe their consciences, but otherwise at a financial loss?

Second: What is the deal with the "Taxes and Fees"? Aren't they supposed to give me a precise breakdown of what "Taxes" and what "Fees" I am paying, and to whom? Would any dinner guest accept a bill from a restaurant that says: "Meal: $15.00. Taxes and Tips: $79.95?" If customers wouldn't accept it from a restaurant, why do they accept it from a travel agency or an airline?

Third: I understand most airports are, at least in the US and Europe, private property nowadays. If so, they cannot possibly charge "Taxes," only "Fees." Fine. But why aren't they even giving me the cost breakdown among airport security (which is a set of private companies in Europe, while the TSA is part of the federal government in the US), baggage handling, etc.?

Fourth: One hears chatter, off and on, about "fuel surcharges." I suppose the idea is that such charges are not presented as part of the ticket price so that they can come down once there is a slump in hydrocarbon prices. But: do they ever come down? Since nobody tells me what part of my "Fees" are "fuel surcharges," I will never be able to tell whether the airline has actually dropped them or keeps charging "behind their customers' backs" so to speak.

Fifth: Is all this just basically a bookkeeping trick, so that airlines can claim they only make, say, $250 on a trip for which the traveller pays a total of $930? Put differently, how are those "Fees" reported to the tax authorities?

Finally, If I am paying "Taxes" on my air tickets, why can I not write them off from my income? It seems to me the "Taxes" I pay for my tickets constitute taxation of my already taxed (net) income. Unless of course if they are VAT-type of taxes. If that's what they are, which state am I paying the VAT to, in the case of, say, a flight originating from the US, making a stopover in Switzerland, and arriving in Hungary (and back)?

Just askin'.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Questions (Almost) Nobody Seems To Ask

  • What about the spectacular failure of the global policy, diplomatic and other international relations apparatuses of the states of the world that allowed the Syria crisis to come to this point?
  • What exactly is stopping normalcy (peaceful solutions) from kicking in? 
  • Where are the benign and convincing efforts of the parties not involved in the conflict to force those involved to the negotiating table? 
  • What exactly are diplomats, international lawyers and intelligence services doing while the crisis proliferates to the point of genocide? 
  • Specifically, WHERE IS THE EUROPEAN UNION--according to its own rhetoric, the "soft power" that is designed to spread peace and tranquility in the world? 
  • Along the same lines, what is the position of the European Union vis-a-vis its member state(s) that are eager to engage in a war?
  • How did we get to the point where war is seen as the only "policy tool"? 
  • Let's say, somebody has "crossed the red line," whatever that is--who said that tomahawk missiles are the only tool to react? 
  • WHERE IS THE EVIDENCE on whodunit? 
  • Seeing all this, what kind of global politics do we have? 
  • What processes produce people that launch nerve gas on civilians? 
  • Who supplied the nerve gas? 
  • Who taught them to use it? 
  • Who advises them? 
  • Who are they anyway? What is wrong with them? 
  • What processes produce the people that let things get this far? 
  • Where is the UN? Who determined that the UN can only investigate the presence / absence of nerve agents, and not who deployed them? 
  • Is the UN accountable to anybody for this negligence?
  • Why is nobody talking about the unbearable vulgarity of all this?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Art Project Uses My Book

I have just come across an online media art project, published in C O N D O Magazine, that uses the colonial network graphs I had developed for, and published in, my book. The artist, Gabriella de Domenico, scanned the network graphs representing the history of European colonialism and transposed them over various images pertaining to migration to Europe today. To view the project, click on this link and scroll down to "Migration Ways."

I like the project. It's cool.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Bank-Government Complicity in Mortgage Trap Scheme Provokes Wildcat Protest

Downtown Budapest is shut down by protesters.

Almost one-third of the population of Hungary lives in a household that toils under an increasingly unmanageable debt burden slapped on them, a decade or so ago, through a "foreign currency based mortgage" scheme--where the principal amount is fixed in CHF and the payments are made in Hungarian Forints (which has been sliding vis-a-vis the CHF for quite a while). As a result, principal is changing monthly. There are also bank fees that anybody familiar with the German or US mortgage system would balk at. The whole thing is essentially one big pyramid scheme, created by banks and the top layers of the political elites. Lack of jobs and foreign-currency mortgages are the two leading causes for the recent spike in job-seeking abroad by hundreds of thousands of Hungarians.

Except for a very partial debt swap scheme easing public employees' burdens introduced by the current government--a drop in the bucket--, the political parties won't touch the issue with a ten-foot pole. Understandably so: they were all complicit in this system. Most deafening is the silence of the self-labelled "left" (in practice: centrist-liberal) parties.

The septuagenerian Péter Róna, a former British banker and a leading figure in the Politics Can Be Different party has been a lone exception: He has repeatedly pointed it out that the "foreign-currency-based mortgage" system is /1/ a "shoddy banking product" and, worse yet, /2/ illegal in Hungary (where commercial law prohibits the mixing of currency speculation with lending, which is the essence of the scheme). So far, Róna's arguments have been ignored and/or ridiculed by /1/ the banks, /2/ neoliberal majority among economists (a.k.a. "the experts") /3/ the government and /4/ the rest of the opposition. This cannot go on much longer: Even from a neoliberal point of view (i.e., even if we reduce society, humans, with needs for shelter, etc., to bodiless supply/demand dynamics), this is a real problem since the prospect of a massive default could lead to an unprecedented collapse and chaos to the Hungarian economy as a whole. Now, _that_ prospect should catch the attention of even neoliberal observers.

So far, it hasn't. Homeowners keep receiving the increasingly absurd monthly statements featuring randomly increasing principals and fees and basically no possibility of a pay-up.

At long last, and predictably, the victims have organized themselves--on their own idiosyncratic terms. On August 20th, 2013, they occupied Astoria, Erzsébet Bridge, and other vital parts of downtown Budapest. At the time of writing this, they are sitting there, on the asphalt, eating sandwiches. Police around them. (Possibly some of them, too, have the same kind of mortgages.) The protesters' language is strikingly familiar: They speak the metaphors of the extreme-right. This is not surprising, given that political speech is fully censored in Hungary: "Left" concerns cannot be voiced.

For now, car and public transport traffic is rerouted. Technically, the protest is "spontaneous": un-registered and without a permit. What makes things a little easier is that there is also a national holiday in progress so that traffic is minimal, and conventionally affected by the festivities anyway.

The question is what happens from tomorrow morning. Elections are to be held in spring 2014.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Society Going Down the Drain

A twelve year old boy was arrested and arraigned by the police in a shopping mall in Hungary last week: The first victim of the new law that allows police action against minors. His crime: skipping school.

Because of the neonazi threat, Budapest Pride took place inside a police cordon, keeping everybody (i.e., including sympathetic onlookers) away from the march. The moment the event was over, the police became scarce. Marchers were systematically threatened, verbally abused, and, as in the case of three men, two of whom are leading civil rights activists -- one the principal of the Dr. Ambedkar School, a unique institution helping Romani children gain access to education, the other the head of the Buddhist association supporting the school, both in the extremely depressed north-east of the country -- first verbally abused, then physically assaulted in front of a police patrol who fully ignored the assault. When addressed by the victims asking for help, the police checked the victims' papers and obviously let the assailants disappear. The report filed by the police claims that it is impossible to determine who provoked whom. The only reason there is now an inquiry of some kind is that the victims rushed to a hospital for medical care and filed their medical release papers with their complaint to the police.

Residents of a village in northwest Hungary have recently learnt--apparently, from the media (!)--that an as-yet vacant, former-Soviet-era barracks in the outskirts of the village will be converted to a non-penitentiary housing facility for asylum seekers. A local resident managed to incite and organize the villagers to stage a set of protests, including a road block. The movement has what appears to be a full infrastructure. It has its own doctor who claims that people coming to Europe from Afghanistan will "infect everybody with ebola, malaria and leprosy," (a claim echoed on the fly-by-night websites of a neonazi paramilitary group recently banned by the government, a decision affirmed by the European Court, but ignored by its members or law enforcement), a group of efficient organizers, poster makers (creating such beautiful statements as, e.g., the poster saying: "Open Facility = Free Robbery!", etc.). Press photographs taken at the protest show well-to-do, young-to-middle-age, slightly overweight white people, standing up for what they think are their "rights": not to allow the government to fulfill its obligation under international treaties to accept and investigate asylum requests. All this makes the current right-wing government look almost reasonable by comparison. (Actually: not really. For its part, the government is acting in bad faith, basically using the villagers' predictable indignation as an excuse /1/ to stall the process and /2/ militarize the conditions under which asylum seekers are held in Hungary.) For their part, the protestors assured the head of the government refugee agency that the entire village will vote for the nazis come next elections. (I have no info as to the extent to which that threat shocked her.) The regional newspaper gives the protests generous coverage, including a prominent link to the website of the protestors. Dissenting or more moderate voices (e.g., somebody suggesting that malaria cannot be passed on from person to person, etc.) were immediately silenced. A direct comparison of today's asylum applicants to the 1956 refugee Hungarians (who were held in a refugee camp not far from this village, on the Austrian side of the border) was met by explicitly pseudo-"scientific" racist comments claiming essential differences.

The Hungarian Public Prosecutor's Office has just dropped a case against a Holocaust-denier MP, on account of an ostensible "lack of a crime."

Recent polls suggest that, while nationwide open support for the extreme-right party is around 10%, over half of the interviewees would affirm a coalition between the right-wing parties currently in the government and the extreme-right, if the currently ruling coalition were to fail to gain a majority of the seats in parliament.

Arguably, Hungary is showing some powerful symptoms of a fascist transformation. Special thanks for that to the elites--both the right wing and the middle (there is of course no "left" visible in politics in Hungary)--that managed the transformation from a somewhat bureaucratic and perhaps a bit boring, upwardly mobile state socialist society, producing, at its peak, food for twice its population, with better-than-expected scores on the quality of life, culture, health, etc., engaged, at the time of the collapse of state socialism, in bold and extremely creative experimentation in many areas of social and economic life to a small, insignificant, desperate, self-hating, xenophobic, classist, racist, sexist, ageist snake pit with widening social inequalities.

All it took was one generation, a tiny bit of west European capital, a lot of vulgar rhetoric, specifically, a /1/ really un-sophisticated anticommunist dogmatism, (essentially an echo of the Stalinist rhetoric two generations before, with a negative sign of course), coupled with /2/ a painfully dumb, Euro-solipsistic cargo cult, /3/ a cartoon version of the neoliberal economic mantra, plus /4/ the implicit and compelling, collective project of strategically forgetting what was widely known about history, politics, etc.

The ressentiment of the poor servant. Here is Max Scheler (Ressentiment, p.6) on the subject:

"If an ill-treated servant can vent his spleen in the antechamber, he will remain free from the inner venom of ressentiment, but it will engulf him if he must hide his feelings and keep his negative and hostile emotions to himself."


Saturday, July 6, 2013

A Hawk Is in the Air

As I have argued sixteen months or so ago (here, here and here), the devouring of the the erstwhile publicly owned "national" airline, Malév Hungarian Airlines, is underway.

As a result of Malév's collapse, thousands of highly qualified employees have been laid off. Budapest almost completely ceased to function as a stopover location. Because of the disappearance of transfer passengers, the business plan of Budapest Airport became suddenly invalid, forcing the closure of Terminal 1--a historic monument, on par with Berlin's Tempelhof Airport terminal in its architectural legacy. Direct flights to a huge number of important central, south-east and east European destinations disappeared, so, if you wished to fly from Budapest to Sarajevo, Dubrovnik, Tirana, Skopje or Sofia, you now have to go through hubs such as Vienna, Munich or Istanbul, with the attendant extra fares, airport taxes and time lost. Even in those central and east European destinations which enjoy direct air service with Budapest, competition has been reduced, resulting in fare increases. Obviously Vienna, Munich and Istanbul Airports, not to mention Austrian Airlines, Lufthansa and Turkish Airlines, have benefited from the increased revenues due to the absence of competition in these segments.

(Keep in mind that tourism is an enormous business in this part of the world; Hungary, with its population of 9.8 million, regularly gets in excess of 8 million foreign tourists annually. Bringing tourists here, and moving them to the tourism strongholds is a no-brainer; it takes real talent to lose money on this.)

A really interesting--and, hitherto only partly answered--part of the issue is what would happen with Malév's most important assets: its flight rights.

Wizz Air--a discount airline, owned by one of Malév's last CEOs--has taken up some of the most profitable routes. However, a number of slots have, for now, been abandoned. Even Lufthansa has stopped flying the Berlin-Budapest route, leaving that connection to Air Berlin and the discount company Easy Jet.

According to today's news, a significant step has been made. A new "national" airline has recently been registered under the name Sólyom International Airways Ltd, ('sólyom' means hawk in Magyar). A right-wing daily newspaper--often serving as a mouthpiece of the current government--carries a brief exclusive report on the news, suggesting that the company will be in the non-discount segment, and that it will rely partly on minority investment from the "middle east," whatever that means. The new company's representative named in the story is a former Aviation Director of the National Traffic Authority.

Of course.


As a cursory online search indicates, there exist a number of enterprises by the name "Hawk Air" or "Falcon Air." Therefore it is unclear how ownership of the name will pan out: If the new company sticks to the Hungarian, it starts with an enormous marketing disadvantage (as its name is neither recognizable nor meaningful for non-Magyar-speaking passengers). If it wishes to use an English version of its name, it might run into law suits.


In other news, the amount of capitalization mentioned in the news reports--4 thousand million EUR--is quite large for Hungary. This implies the presence of (a) major external partner(s), and very powerful domestic partners as well. Considering that, the entire story is introduced in a somewhat sloppy way--I'm starting to doubt some parts of it.


The news reports are talking about "ticket sales for August." That is, let's just say, strikingly ambitious, considering that no permit applications have been filed yet, nor has there been any advertizing, market presence, or fleet. We don't even know what segments they are planning to fly.


One day later, the leading Hungarian economic weekly pretty much treats the entire news story as a hoax. Way too late, way to indetereminate where the demand would come from, etc. I'm starting to think that the most interesting aspect of the story is the particular structure of the dream ("middle east" minority shareholder[s] will 'help' create successful airline in central Europe, etc.).


According to the transparency portal atlatszo.hu, the holding that owns the registration of the new company and its various sister organizations has a total capitalization of half a million HUF (approximately, USD 23 thousand). According to another Hungarian source, the new holding has not approached the Hungarian authorities for the necessary permits yet, plans for August takeoffs might appear somewhat un-orthodox.

UPDATE 6: <6> On July 12, rumors are circulating that the airline is recruiting pilots. The aviation authority is skeptical about the possibility of putting all paperwork right by August though, and there is no record of any planes having been bought or leased by the holding.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

North-Atlantic Union: Game Over for Global Neoliberal Capitalism?

Here we go: witness the first steps toward a North Atlantic Union. The EU began exactly the same way two generations ago, via a small set of seemingly innocuous, quasi-technical trade agreements and steps of policy "harmonization".

For about two decades now, the US and the EU have both had an enormous, historic problem: their inability to keep apace in economic growth with the two largest--and, since the early-to-mid-20th century, increasingly among the poorest--societies in the world, China and India (plus a not-so-negligible group of others, such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc.). This is THE news of the early-21st century, this is what is re-shaping the world as we speak, and this is what almost nobody in the mainstream wants directly to talk about. Perhaps that is so because it is not exactly reasonable, let alone in good taste, to complain about slow or no growth when you already have 36 to 50+% of the world's economic output with less than 12% of the population, while the states you would be complaining about have 36+% of the population with 15% to 24% of the economic weight, depending on the method of estimation.

BTW, a North-Atlantic Union, even if it manages to overcome the gigantic political obstacles it faces on both sides, won't solve the EU's and the US's problem. It will only postpone the conflict. Of course in geopolitics, gaining time might mean much more than just time, and I suspect that's exactly why the political elites, working on rather short temporal leashes, are doing this.

The North-Atlantic Union definitely will, meanwhile, add a significant layer of inequalities, and conflict, in the world, since it will inevitably be seen, and by and large rightly so, as yet another geopolitical move to "share and pool" the resources (and the sovereignties) of the already way overextended "western" societies in the world. It is also quite possible that this is the very last move under the current form of global neoliberal capitalism: the geopolitical logic that is inherent to this move by definition cannot be continued: there will be no more "western," "white" societies to swallow in this way.

Be that as it may, it is fairly obvious that the technocrats that are crafting this move have no concern for the question (or even the appearance) of global equity, justice, fairness, etc. They are shrugging off even the "realpolitik"-style possible practical concerns about the dangers of creating more structural inequality in an already overly tense global system.

My guess is that herein we can see the results of the Euro- and west-centric solipsism that has dominated intellectual life in the "west" since the long 16th century, and most prominently so over the last two generations.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

On "Not Having American Friends"

In the breathtaking shallowness, the sheer jingoism and the thinly veiled predilection for a white, upper-middle-class, repressed, exclusivist, and overall more or less unambiguously authoritarian society that characterizes much of US media nowadays, the story of the Boston bombing brought out a rather noteworthy point. Much has been made of the fact that elder of the two brothers accused of the bombings has apparently said once, in some--to me as yet unknown--context that "he does not have a single American friend." And that's because he, ostensibly, does not understand "them."

Now that's not only interesting; it is something that sociologists ought to be able to say something about. As it turns out, they have. So, let's take the problem apart for a moment.

First, the implication in emphasizing this seems to be that this makes him somehow different from the rest of us. As it turns out, having fewer and fewer friends is a generic problem that plagues US society. Those of us who don't know this from their immediate experience have surely had a chance to learn about it from Robert D. Putnam's widely celebrated book, Bowling Alone. Here the author claims that the interpersonal density of social life of in the USA is waning. In his words, "we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often." In other words, the alleged Boston bomber may not be all that different from the rest of us in this regard. Most Americans don't have many American friends.

Second, there is a very large and distinguished literature on the social networks of immigrants. Two themes seem relevant to this issue. First, immigrants often experience sociality as it exists in the United Stats difficult to interpret, as it is mis-aligned with their "cultural" understandings. In-depth interviews conducted by Elizabeth Gareis, for instance, suggest suggest that "all informants struggled with cultural differences concerning friendship formation. Most prominently, the different category width of the word 'friend' and the extent of public and private personality layers in the two cultures caused confusion and misunderstandings." In other words, what the accused, now dead Boston bomber might have meant when he was not a bomber yet may have been a reflection on this cross-cultural mis-match. We don't know.

In a context that is often un-decipherable to them, immigrants often tend to rely on co-ethnic networks. Work on migrant informality and the social embeddedness of migrant economic action constitutes the classics of the sociology of migration. Taken together, the ties that bind immigrants to local society are important determinants of the character of the context of reception that determines, in turn, a huge part of the migrant experience, not only in a narrowly economic sense, but also in terms of psychological well-being and emotional stability. All those points seem directly relevant to the Boston case.

Finally, work on the discrimination and segregation to which African Americans are still subjected in the United States, has uncovered, approximately one generation ago, that social networks play a significant part in the preservation and inter-generational transmission of disadvantages. William Julius Wilson has suggested, for instance, that "Social isolation deprives residents of inner-city neighborhoods not only of resources and conventional role models, whose former presence buffered the effects of neighborhood joblessness, but also of the kind of cultural learning from mainstream social networks that facilitates social and economic advancement in modern industrial society." (The extent to which the US is an "industrial society" is somewhat questionable, but that's beside the point, as it stands even more for the post-industrial service economy that the US has evolved.)

It is not possible to talk about sociality, friendship and informal ties in the United States without these insights. And that is exactly what the meanstream media (pun intended) does. I wonder why.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Ta(l)king the EU Seriously

On March 19, 2013, I gave a lecture, at the Social Theory College of Corvinus University in Budapest, about "The EU as an Object of Critical, Historical Geopolitical Analysis." A few days afterwards, I had an interesting conversation with Vincent Liegey--an activist of the decroissance (degrowth) movement, currently working in Budapest--and Zoltán Lakatos--who teaches in the Sociology Department at the Budapest Technological University. The conversation was organized, prompted, recorded and subsequently broadcast on Civil Rádió a few days later by JD, who runs "Mindenki joga" (Rights for Everyone) the only regular English-language community radio show in Budapest.

Here is a link to the audio recording. (The actual conversation begins at around 9:30.)

Monday, March 4, 2013

Critique of Inequality in the USA: The Art of Self-Disabling

A new and interesting video--entitled "Wealth Inequality in America"--is circulating on the internet. It is quite timely, measured and useful. I will show it in the Economic Sociology class I am teaching this semester (and will report if anything particularly interesting transpires). But, right away, there are some limitations:

1. It is really unfortunate that there is no author attribution: I can't tell my students _who_ is speaking. The links that appear briefly at the end of the video and underneath the video window on the youtube site don't do the job. This is a real problem, imho: When somebody speaks to me, in this voice over mode, I would appreciate an opportunity to know who they are.

2. The narrator refers repeatedly to "socialism" in a really inaccurate and misleading way. Full equality, or even the demand for a full equality, in the sense in which it is depicted on the screen (every percentile of the population getting the exact amount of money, etc.) was never a tenet of "socialism", as practice or as theory. In fact, the famous socialist slogan "from each according to ability, to each according to need" actually explicitly declares that full equality ought not to exist (since there are differences in both abilities and need). More broadly, the reference to "socialism" (let alone such a vulgar, misinformed one) is logically unnecessary for the argument the video puts forth.

3. Perhaps worse yet, the makers of the video shy away from references to the rest-of-the-world. That's truly a pity, since the USA--the focus of this project--is somewhere between 5th and 15th in the global per capita income scale (depending on your method of estimation), and pretty much all of the comparably well-to-do or even wealthier states in the world have a more equitable distribution, in many cases: strikingly less unequal distribution, of income and wealth than the USA. In other words, the institutional invention of state regulated (welfare or even post-welfare) capitalism, a la Norway, Sweden, even Germany, etc., is entirely left out of the picture.

Why does this matter?

It matters because all that makes it look, for a vast majority of the viewers--I suspect including most students I encounter in my undergraduate classes, for instance--that "inequality is bad but nothing can be done about it," short of "socialism," (which is "bad" and/or "impossible"). I think that is truly unfortunate, and reveals something about the character of public discourse in the United States today. /1/ Critique is there, but it is entirely inward-looking; /2/ discussions on collective solution are politically self-disabling.

cover page of the book

cover page of the book
image used for the cover design by Anannya Dasgupta