Saturday, October 21, 2006

Talks: Joe Higgins and David McWilliams debate the free market

The Socialist Party held a debate between Joe Higgins and David McWilliams at a packed Teacher's Club in Parnell Square last Friday night on the topic of whether there is an alternative to the capitalist market.
Higgins kicked off proceedings with the proposition that politics now is still operating under the Thatcher dictum that 'there is no alternative to the market'. Not only that but politicians have sought to use the idea of the market as a mechanism on which to build a society, claiming that it promotes fairness through competition, making it seem "like a stroll down Moore Street". In reality, Higgins said, this is a ruthless system that has as its primary aim the maximisation of profits for a powerful minority contrary to the interests of a disenfranchised majority. He pointed to the example of the Irish housing market, which has seen the price of the average home increase by IR£30,000 every year for the last decade causing a generation of young people to be enslaved by debt. Meanwhile a 'golden circle' of developers, bankers and speculators are reaping untold profits from this obscene boom. Higgins singled out the sale of eleven acres of land in Stillorgan for €88 million in 2004. The sellers were a consortium of investors made up of various professionals who had bought the land in 2000 for €32 million and had done nothing with it. People buying apartments on this site will have to pay for these wildly excessive profits, Higgins said. Naturally the Goverment has done little to stop this profiteering and simultaneously failed to provide adequate infrastructure for the countless new homes springing up around the country.
Higgins went on to lambast the Government for its botched privatisations and identified them as part of a broader neo-liberal trend that treated the worker as a commodity and sought to undermine employment rights wherever possible. Gama and Irish Ferries were examples of 'a race to the bottom'. Higgins finished off by offering the socialist solution: a planned economy where public assets were left in state ownership in the interests of the people.
McWilliams, clearly on enemy ground, put his side of the argument by highlighting the winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, Muhammad Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank,that provides credit for ordinary Bangladeshis, which has been a liberatory force for change in the country according to McWilliams who then went to say that the Higgins version of Ireland was little more than a carciature. As evidence, McWilliams noted that the recent census showed that 68% of people identified themselves as middle class. This indicated that the country wasn't divided between the super-rich and alienated poor but was populated by a relatively comfortable majority. It was also wrong to characterise the economy as a free-for-all, instead it is what it has always been: a mix of private and public enterprise.
However, McWilliams then departed from this moderate tone and began to talk what he felt were the main challenges facing the Irish economy. Of particular concern is that in reality there is nothing going on in Ireland except a housing boom. American multinationals account for 87% of exports and when you add a few percentage points for agriculture, it means the economy is actually producing fuck all. Instead, McWilliams said we are drawing on a huge overdraft and that the property market is a pyramid scheme of monumental proportions. He was in no doubt that this will cause a middle class crisis in the next decade leading to a radicalisation of politics towards nationalism and the right. Inevitably the victims of this would be immigrants because McWilliams believes Ireland is not a tolerant nation. The solution is for the state to draw back from the EU and assert greater independence over its fiscal policy in order to waylay the impact of the inevitable downturn.
Both seemed to agree that the housing front is a disaster but strangely, it was Higgins, whose politics are outside the mainstream, who ended up sounding the more positive note while McWilliams though beginning optimistically, finished on the brink of apocalypse.
After the speeches, questions were taken from the floor; in reality it was little more than an opportunity for the audience to make their own often lengthy and tedious speeches. I legged with N and went for a Chinese on Moore Street, which seemed apt.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Talks: Former UK Ambassador Craig Murray at the ATGWU

Craig Murray, the former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, spoke at a meeting organised by the Irish Anti-War Movement in the ATGWU building on Middle Abbey Street in Dublin last night.
Murray, a career diplomat who had served in the British Foreign Office for twenty years, was posted to Uzbekistan in 2002, apparently on the basis that he could speak Polish, which was so close to the Russian spoken by the Uzbekis that he would be able to manage. This seems wholly unlikely but Murray was highlighting in a comic way the level of ignorance in the Foreign Office about the country. At the time of his appointment, Uzbekistan was a close ally of the US, who had an air base there. It was part of what Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld described as the lily pad doctrine, which entailed the US having small air bases dotted all over Central Asian republics that could be quickly expanded in the event of a war from a standing level of 2000 soldiers to 40,000 within a month. Murray said that US sought to have bases all the way from Cyprus, where the British have a presence, to eastern Uzbekistan and believes that the intention is to control the supply of the massive oil and gas reserves in the region.
Soon after arriving to what was his first ambassadorial position, Murray decided to attend the trial of a 'dissident' charged with links to Al-Qaida and with the murder of a policeman, an offence for which the court had already convicted a number of people. The manner in which the trial was conducted - the absence of any fair procedures with an overtly anti-Islamic judge presiding - deeply worried Murray.
As he pointed out in his talk, Uzbekistan is run by dictator Islom Karimov whose totalitarian government incarcerates thousands of political prisoners and forces many of its people to work as virtual slaves in state cotton farms, earning around $2 a month. There is no freedom of speech, assembly, media or an opposition. Uzbekistan happens to be the second largest exporter of cotton in the world and much of the clothing Irish people wear is likely to include cotton picked by Uzbek slave workers.
Because of his presence at the trial, people started coming to Murray with stories of torture, some of which he described in gruesome detail. He decided to raise the issue with the Foreign Office but was told not to be 'over-focussed' on human rights. He later met representatives of the Foreign Office in 2003 and was told that information from tortured terrorist suspects was legal if the British did not actually torture and did not specifically request a particular person be tortured. Such information could be 'operationally useful'. In other words, Murray said, it didn't matter whether it was true as long as it could further the foreign policy of the goverment, which was always driven by commercial interests.
Because of his opposition to the Karimov regime, Murray resigned in 2004 and has since become an active campaigner against Western policy in the region and the 'war on terror' in general. Murray was highly sceptical about the heathrow plot uncovered in August and was critical of what he thinks is a rising tide of Islamophobia in Britain, witnessed by the near hysterical coverage of Muslim people in the press and the unnecessary coverage given to Jack Straw's ideas about how Muslim women should dress in his constituency office.
Interestingly, the US no longer has an air base in Uzbekistan with the country recently signing a deal with Russian energy giant Gazprom for access to its gas fields, which may reveal something about how politics is going in the region as Russia seeks to gain further control of energy supply.
Murray is speaking again tonight at a debate in Trinity College.

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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Cinema: The Departed

Despite positive reviews in the press, I thought Martin Scorsese's new film The Departed was for the most part a tremendous bore and reminded me of what the music critic John Harris said about U2 - though in their mid-forties, they were still singing about neon skies and open roads, pedalling the same tired old wares to a seemingly grateful public. Harris argued that if Bono and the boys wanted to be compared to rock greats like Dylan and Young, they would have to describe something of their own lives, specifically getting older, instead of opting for hopeless generalities about getting 'stuck in moments you can't get out of.'
It seems apposite when considering Scorsese, who is still making films about extremely violent men, which while undoubtedly profesionally made and shot, are creativley moribund. Critics have described this is a return to form after the anaemic 'Aviator' but it feels to me more like an act of desperation, a tacit acknowledgement that Scorsese has nothing new to say. There is a curiously 'out of time, out of place' quality to 'The Departed' because of the absence of any references to contemporary America. What there is a lot of is people cursing at each other and casual violence as played out in a fairly leaden story about the thin line that separates the police and criminals.
Inevitably Jack Nicholson has been singled out by critics, from whom he appears to have immunity, as giving the lead performance for his portrayal of Boston Irish gang boss Frank Costelloe. It is in fact a ridiulous turn - essentially a reprise of his Joker in the first Batman - and prevents the film from having any real sense of menace.
In its defence, there is occasionally some fine dialogue with Mark Wahlberg and Alec Baldwin in supporting roles having the best of the comic riffs. But these aren't enough to alleviate the tedium as you notice the clock hitting the two and half hour mark.
Scorsese's last project was No Direction Home, a documentary on Bob Dylan, which started promisingly but got fixated on Dylan's decision to go 'electric' for Blonde on Blonde. His supposed betrayal of the folk scene was examined and re-examined ad nauseam leaving little or no time to cover Dylan's later years. Scorsese got stuck in a moment he couldn't get out of, and with 'The Departed' he's doing it all over again. Why doesn't he simply ditch these lame gangster stories and go off on a mad tangent like Kundun for the remainder of his career? It may be more difficult to get films like this made but surely it is better to take risks than to play out the same move again and again. And anyway there is such a thing as late style after all.

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Monday, October 09, 2006

Hidden Links: Agamben and Pasolini

A surprising discovery last night while watching The Gospel according to St. Matthew:
Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben plays Phillip, one of the amateur actors that director Pier Paolo Pasolini selected ahead of professionals for what is a harsh and admittedly hard going adaptation of Matthew's gospel.
Agamben is currently something of an academic star because of his belief, as outlined by Daniel Binswanger in Sign and Sight, that "the modern state is nothing other than a totalitarian organisation for the efficient administration of bare biological life." His refusal to be fingerprinted at JFK airport in New York and his subsequent ejection from the country have added further to his fame.
Daniel Morris, writing in Bookforum, believes that Agamben's participation in the film was critical to his development as a philosopher and political theorist - he published his first article the year the film was made(1964) and enjoyed something of intellectual flowering subsequent to it, the highlight being a two year stint with Heidegger in France between 66 and 68.
Not content with identifying oppressive character of the modern state, Agamben also has ideas about the gestural nature of cinema.

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Cinema: Time to Leave

Romain is a young successful fashion photographer who collapses during a shoot. After undergoing a series of tests, and at first believing he has AIDS, his doctor informs him that he has terminal cancer and has only perhaps a year to live. Refusing chemotherapy, seeing it as useless and painful, Romain tries to come to terms with his imminent death although he decides not to tell his parents, sister, or boyfriend. Instead he confides in his grandmother because as he observes to her, she will die soon as well. This gives an idea of the mood of the film: harsh, unsparing and unsentimental. The problem with this is that it is very hard to care about what happens to Romain. His character is barely sketched - we know there is some family history of infidelity but not much more is revealed and while we witness his decline, little is gleaned from the experience. Perhaps director Francois Ozon is indicating that to confer meaning is an attempt to avoid the reality of death, to skirt around its inevitablity. To say we can learn something from it is ridiculous - it is what it is. But then in the final scene, Romain appears at least to find peace as he lies on the beach and recalls summers as a boy, swimming in the sea and playing with other children, the adult world dispensed in all its superfluity, the sun shining in his eyes.

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Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Talks: Erich Mendelsohn in Dublin

An exhibition on German archictect Erich Mendelsohn (1887-1953) is currently running in three venues across Dublin. Well, to be accurate in and around Merrion Square and Stephen's Green in the offices of the OPW, the RIAI and at the Goethe Institut.
To put the exhibition in context, Regina Stephan, academic and author, recently gave a talk on his life and work at the National Gallery, which opened with the observation that though Mendelsohn lived through two world wars and was exiled three times, he managed to produce a vast body of work that remains one of the most impressive of all twentieth century architects.
Born to a middle-class Jewish family in northern Germany, and after studying economics in Berlin, Mendelsohn went to Munich in the early 1900's eager to become part of the expressionist art movement that was then flourishing in the city, in particular Der Blaue Reiter group, which included artists like Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Munter.
Mendelsohn was an inveterate sketcher and also dabbled in costume design for theatre and the many balls held in the city. Sent to fight on the eastern front in the first world war, Mendelsohn spent most of the time sitting in the trenches making over fifteen hundred sketches, which he sent to his family and which are now stored in the KunstBibliothek in Berlin.
After the war ended, he managed to pick up the commission to design the 'Einstein house'in Potsdam, outside Berlin, a project intended to provide a laboratory in which the theory of relativity could be proven. Stephan noted that despite the severe post-war economic climate, there was a national 'Einsteinspend' to raise funds for the building so that the Americans wouldn't get there first.
From this project until the economic crash of 1929, Mendelsohn developed what was then the biggest architectural practice in Europe, designing department stores and cinemas around Germany. Particularly influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright, Mendelsohn visited America in the twenties and was overcome by the near carnivalesque nocturnal flood of light that greeted him in Times Square. It is hard to imagine now but European cities at the time were largely shrouded in dark at night and Mendelsohn proceeded to produce buildings that would replicate the American light, albeit in a more subtle integrated fashion.
Another pivotal journey was to England in the early thirties as the Nazis were on the brink of attaining power. Mendelsohn's modernist architecture was then falling out of favour as the 'Heimat stil', a more traditional, necessarily nationalistic form, was beginning to dominate. In London, he gave a lecture on modern architecture that amounts to his aesthetic manifesto and calls for the union of function and expressiveness in design. He and his family left Germany permanently in 1933, moving to London and setting up a practice there. Despite being a fixture on the social scene, Mendelsohn completed only one building there - the much praised performance centre in Bexhill (which featured in Children of Men) in the south of the country. In exile, he met Chaim Weizmann, later to become the first president of Israel, who invited him to work on a number of projects in Jerusalem. He moved there in the late thirties but was obliged to flee again in 1941 when the Germans were descending on the city. This time like many other Jewish emigres he headed for New York. Despite this being a spiritual home, Mendelsohn didn't work for many years and only managed a few more commissions before he died in 1953.
As well as sketching, Mendelsohn was a prodigious letter writer, in particular to his wife, to whom he wrote constantly. Unfortunately this correspondence is dispersed in various institutions in Germany and the US and if collected would no doubt give greater insight and detail into what appears to have been a remarkable life.
Token Irish reference: apparently there is a bandstand in Bexhill that is designed by an Irish architect. It stands in front of the performance centre looking out over the English channel.

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