Tuesday, 9 August 2011

London calling

An initially peaceful demonstration over the death of a man in a police shooting incident in Tottenham, north London, has now escalated into the worst social unrest seen in London for decades. The original protest has morphed into extensive violence across the capital drawing in disparate and opportunist elements such as gangs, disaffected youth and looters motivated purely by greed. Huge fires have raged out of control for hours. Desperate shopkeepers and small business owners have seen their livelihoods destroyed, families have lost their homes and communities have been torn apart. Overstretched and badly coordinated police services have been unable to cope leaving people frightened and isolated. A political vacuum has been exposed within London itself as the mayor and the prime minister eventually scurry back from their holidays.

Though these disturbances bear some superficial similarity with the riots of the 1980s the most significant recent precedent is something quite different: the Ikea riot of 10 February 2005 in which a new superstore in Edmonton, north London, provoked mass greed by slashing its prices for a limited period. Vast crowds stormed the store and roads were blocked by abandoned cars as people feared missing potential bargains. These surreal scenes are much closer to the type of violence experienced in London that was not being driven by a clearly defined political agenda and had little or no connection with the original protest in Tottenham. A consumer society in which many are reduced to passive onlookers has instilled a pent-up fury that has morphed into a nihilistic desire for destruction. Though recent public spending cuts and other issues have generated a sense of anxiety the current wave of violence cannot be attributed to the last few months of public policy alone. Extensive cutbacks in youth services in deprived neighbourhoods, the curtailment of the Educational Maintenance Allowance and other deleterious developments all play a role in the wider context for what has happened but they do not fully or even partly explain the indiscriminate nature of the violence. A society which peddles false aspirations but fails to invest adequately in its own future can only drift into a further spiral of decline.

Friday, 5 August 2011


The on-going global financial crisis of 2007-8 has been transformed through ideological sleight of hand into a public sector debt crisis. The underlying causes of this economic turbulence — the criminality, negligence and irresponsibility of the banking and finance sectors — have been occluded by a renewed political assault on the public realm. Momentary political commitments towards more effective global regulation have faded away as power elites regroup to protect their self-interest.

Pivotal to this crisis is the existence of a shadowy second global economy into which ever more resources flow against a background of fiscally starved national economies that are politically prevented from raising their tax bases. The haemorrhage of capital from the global economy out of productive circulation into offshore tax havens is conservatively estimated at about a third of global GDP. This enormous loss of wealth undermines the possibilities for greater investment in infrastructure, health care, education, science and all those other fields essential for human well-being. As the journalist Nicholas Shaxson argues in Treasure Islands, “tax burdens are being shifted away from mobile capital and corporations, onto the shoulders of ordinary folk”.1 In the United States, for example, the political impasse faced over raising taxes is contributing towards a long-term slide in global competiveness because of stymied resources for investment in those critical areas essential for future prosperity. Indebtedness and declining competitiveness become ever closer entwined generating further economic woes and political polarization.

The causes of this global political and economic crisis are interrelated. News Corporation, for example, now mired in scandal for criminal activities, also has more than 150 overseas subsidiaries set up to avoid paying tax (located principally in the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands and Hong Kong). The unravelling of News Corporation’s political influence in the UK is welcome but beware their quiet return in eighteen months or so to make another attempt at gaining control of BSkyB to further extend their control of British media by stealth. Note also that they and their political acolytes are committed to undermining the BBC and public sector broadcasting in order to increase their market share.

Shaxson argues persuasively that it is time to tackle the “offshore system” but this will require a reshaping of the political Left as a coherent global force to be reckoned with, capable of championing the public interest whether this be Tsetse control in sub-Saharan Africa or the closing of tax loopholes in the Caribbean. In the mean time we should remain sceptical of charitable foundations and other forms of corporate responsibility that mask the real dynamics of wealth and power in the global economy until there is true accountability and transparency.

1 Nicholas Shaxson, Treasure islands: tax havens and the men who stole the world (London: the Bodley Head, 2010).

Tuesday, 2 August 2011


The Danish film Hævnen (2010), also released under the English title of In a Better World, is a real gem. Directed by Susanne Bier, Hævnen, meaning revenge in Danish, is a subtle and powerful exploration of anger, grief and violence.

A bullying incident at school invokes a brutal retaliation that leaves us feeling decidedly uneasy: the bullied boy’s new friend is struggling with grief over his mother’s death which he channels into a ferocious assault on the school bully. We want a decisive retaliation but the incident goes too far. At this point the film bears some initial similarities with David Cronenberg’s A history of violence (2005), but in Hævnen the sense of emotional tension is sustained throughout and there is no descent into cartoon mobsterism.

The bullied boy’s father, played superbly by Mikael Persbrandt, is also caught in an ugly street incident watched by his son and his new friend (and protector). The father is slapped and insulted by an aggressive stranger but does not retaliate. He tries to explain that his passivity is a sign of strength but his son and his friend cannot accept this and secretly plan a revenge attack of their own.

As a parallel narrative, the father of the bullied boy works regularly as a doctor in a refugee camp in war-torn east Africa: a few days later he is faced with the moral dilemma of treating a man who has brutally attacked women in nearby villages. After his treatment, however, the man begins to taunt the doctor over his crimes and in a sudden rage the doctor pushes him to the ground. It is a striking and extraordinary scene that profoundly tests our emotional response to anger.

Using the tranquil Danish countryside as a backcloth Hævnen is a multi-faceted exploration of how anger drives and distorts human relationships. Bier presents a much more effective exploration of violence than Cronenberg because she detects the incipient traces of violence all around: there is a pervasive sense of fury that leaps like sparks between the main protagonists. The eventual denouement, following the boys disastrous attempt to avenge the street incident, is all the more powerful because we have grown to know the complexities of the individual characters and we as an audience have made an emotional investment in the final outcome.

City of geckos

I arrived yesterday for the first time in Singapore and muddled my way from the airport to the university by public transport. That night I lay awake with the time difference, gradually becoming conscious of the incessant hum of the air conditioning unit in my room, yet after switching it off I noticed the sound of yet more units everywhere, creating a permanent orchestra of temperature and humidity control. Since there was little chance of sleeping I went outside and wandered along neon-lit walkways expecting to find every light surrounded by night-flying insects but the pristine white surfaces were oddly deserted of life. I realized after a while that every light fitting had its own resident gecko, ready to dart out and feast on any unlucky visitors. Looking out at the city itself everything seemed shrouded in a humid haze rendering shapes and distances indistinct.

Earlier that evening I had left a restaurant and one of my colleagues remarked on the absence of the homeless: poverty does exist in Singapore but it has become relegated from the public realm. Visible signs of social inequality or exclusion are more subtle: the lone figure at a bus stop who never leaves their seat or the sun-wizened faces of labourers weeding the university lawns.

Like Hong Kong, Singapore plays a complex and largely hidden role within the global economy, its networks and connections significantly shaped by its colonial history. With its separation from Malaysia the city-state of Singapore has had to build its wealth almost entirely on the basis of human capital and from its role as a global entrepôt for trade and finance. Yet Singapore forms part of an ambivalent zone where capitalism and democracy are only nominally connected: if anything or anyone should unsettle the status quo the political geckos of state power are ready to spring into action.