Distilled Magazine The Global Crisis in Confidence

Letter from the Editor-in-chief

Sarang Shah

Telling the story of who we are and where we are going is daunting. "Current affairs", with its ever-expanding cast and byzantine networks of relationships, is the longest-running, most difficult soap opera to describe.

Why are we interested in telling a story anyway? Stories capture the factual and emotional core of an issue in a way that a mere description or scholarly treatise often cannot. Since a story is told by a speaker to a listener, a story must hold the listener's attention and provoke the listener's imagination. Stories condense vast realms of knowledge and understanding into a comprehensive fragment of the human experience.

However, telling a story requires a panoramic vista. It requires several long uncomfortable struggles: first with oneself, then with friends and enemies, finally with critics and admirers. Most importantly, telling a story requires a probing exploration of our collective underlying assumptions — the pursuit of which can lead to prolonged isolated retreats into the intellectual wilderness.

We start our story, as many Millennials would, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the USSR. The fall of communism's greatest remaining beachhead seemed to lead many to declare liberal capitalist democracy as the victor in the great 20th century materialist war. We felt secure in shared victory.

This sense of triumph persisted through the early 2000s, significantly affecting the West's response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th. While these attacks paled in comparison to other horrors in the global historical scope of miseries, they were a blow to a sense of pervasive physical security in the West. The West responded with fear and largely retaliated by force.

Although our sense of physical security was shaken, we still enjoyed a feeling of economic security until the housing bubble burst in 2007. The bubble had long obscured a system of financial tools, subversive social practices, and systemic deception, greed, and ignorance that threatened to damage society far more than any speculative bubble. Poor public policy from 2008 to the present day has exacerbated unemployment and limited recovery and debt repayment in the UK, the US, and Europe. Governments have adopted austerity measures that deterioriate the ties between the state and the individual.

The general decline in opportunity and the sudden transparency of once-submerged inequalities has spawned several emotional protest movements, from the Indignados in Spain to the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street in America. Meanwhile, the social consequence of a state in which opportunities for political expression are both explicitly and implicitly limited are readily seen in Egypt and other states of the Arab uprisings.

We have lost our sense of physical and economic security. We have lost our sense of security of identity and value as economically motivated immigration and emigration have dispersed us around the world. We have even lost our sense of political security, a belief that we have an influence over the functioning of our democracies.

So, what are some of the common trends among these and other world events over the past few decades?

The trust and cooperation that were once the gravitational bonds that attracted people into stable capitalist systems are eroding away. Rather than re-evaluate these bonds and the system they create, the narrative of capitalistic victory has stubbornly committed to re-deriving morality from markets rather than basing markets on shared non-material values.

Instead of speaking directly of political and ethical values, we are now occupied by the cold, technical, scientific language of modern economics — of a dehumanising Hobbesian view of humankind that defrauds it of its heritage and its instinctual capacity for empathy. Many who do deploy a values-based language, such as the religious right-wing, often do so superficially. They are more interested in imposing their values on others and using professions of these values as commoditised signifiers than in a public values-based debate. In nearly any case, an economic quantitative view is the ultimate arbiter.

We are fearful not of the truth, but of developing and defending an idea. The alternative is not obstinacy when confronted with reasoned arguments; any stance that compels social action should be vigorously criticised and defended and not weakly equivocated.

We lack a public discourse on what values are worth defending in society and how we ought to act on those values without yielding to fear and panic. Vaclav Havel, recently deceased Czech dissident and former President of the Czech Republic, pursued in his later years the goal of a common cross-religious ethical framework that would underpin the future of Western liberal civilisation. While much derided at the time for this pursuit, his diagnosis of our problem remains correct: we have lost a coherent, compelling narrative that explains how we got here and where we are going.

We can no longer defend liberal institutions without resorting to hollow value-deprived language and reasoning based on a stale capitalistic narrative. Unfortunately, as the once vibrant post-war liberal narrative deteriorates in the face of mathematical models and bureaucratisation, we are left with a far more brutal narrative of material self-interest, or worse, no narrative at all.

Without a new modern narrative, we will reap ever-increasing yields of cynicism and disillusion.

Distilled, a student magazine based out of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, aims to create and develop stories — stories that both describe society and assert how society ought to be. Through the instructive lens of specific events and issues, we seek to discuss and critically evaluate the larger global expectations and assumptions which drive world events. Our goal is to not only describe these trends, developments, and problems, but also to evaluate possible solutions on a pragmatic, political, and ethical basis.

These stories are myriad and may at-first be complex and even impenetrable, but they are necessary first steps to some intellectually nurturing and fecund grand narrative. These stories reflect the power of human creation and the constant enlargement of the human faculty to understand and cope with the human condition. While a story can be used to fan bigotry, violence, ignorance, and other vices of human character, it can also furnish hope and optimism. In any case, it is far better to have some narrative to accept, reject, or shape rather than wander with no narrative at all.

Distilled remains deeply indebted to the grand old tradition of the study of political economy and cultural criticism — a tradition that has relented to the pressures of academic specialisation. Hence, I would like to end with an excerpt from the final chapter of "The Economic Consequences of the Peace" (written by the great political economist John Maynard Keynes shortly after the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919) that concisely encapsulates the motivations of Distilled Magazine:

The events of the coming year will not be shaped by the deliberate acts of statesmen, but by the hidden currents, flowing continually beneath the surface of political history, of which no one can predict the outcome. In one way only can we influence these hidden currents,—by setting in motion those forces of instruction and imagination which change opinion. The assertion of truth, the unveiling of illusion, the dissipation of hate, the enlargement and instruction of men's hearts and minds, must be the means.


Distilled Magazine The Global Crisis in Confidence

No End to the Panic

Dan Baker

Rushing from one brush fire to the next with a leaky bucket, the European reaction to its sovereign debt crisis has been long on panic and short on comprehensive solutions. Rightly intent to prevent a Lehman-Brothers type contagion, but also hesitant to overreach politically, European leaders have followed Germany through a muddled reaction. Each new measure has been more strained than the previous. As of writing, the Euro leaders have staved off the existential threat, but have accomplished little else. Survival may be essential, but there also must be critical examination of the piecemeal strategy to return to economic stability.

While bailing out the periphery, the Euro core has extracted liberalizing reforms, program cuts, and covenants on deficits with intent to make the periphery leaner and more competitive. It stands to reason that with a more more competitive economy and smaller deficits, they would be more able to shoulder the burden of their debts. Perhaps more importantly to the political leaders involved, the covenants are designed to prevent a moral hazard in running up another large debt before asking again for a bailout. On first examination, consolidation is a natural, instinctual reaction to a crisis, and it will gain a lot of votes from the common-sense critics in an electoral base. However, on closer examination, it gives rise to more questions than answers.

Of course, increased competitiveness and smaller deficits help any economy, but these are only part of the story. The sovereign debt crisis arises under the auspices of a severely depressed European economy that many economists expect to suffer a double-dip recession in 2012. That double-dip has seemingly been caused by the debt crisis or the reaction to thereto, and the issues must be understood and solved together. Solving the debt crisis while remaining in depression is both unacceptable and infeasible, as a suffering economy naturally reduces tax revenues and increases welfare expenditures, each making sovereign debt balance more difficult to sustain. In fact, Olivier Blanchard, chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, recently suggested that joint fiscal consolidation, such as the reforms enforced in Europe, may actually make a sovereign debt crisis worse, as its negative effect on growth is so profound that it overwhelms the costs saved. [1]

Consolidating through labor market reforms and program cuts appeals to instinctual common sense and is sure to gain a lot of votes with a concerned electorate. It stands to reason that hunkering down and waiting for the storm to pass will allow an economy to rebound with increased efficiency when the situation improves. However, implicit in this understanding is that the economy will in fact start on its own, that the depressed economy is like a storm, an outside force that will improve regardless of a leader's response. If, instead, the depressed economy is made more depressed by the consolidation, then leaders may be hunkering down waiting for a storm that will only grow stronger.

Who is to say how long the storm we are currently experiencing will last? The precedent is not pretty. In many ways, the initial financial shock of the Great Recession resembles the Great Depression in type and scope. In fact, three of the five biggest economies in the European Union (Great Britain, Italy, and Spain) are doing worse through for years of the present crisis than they did in the Great Depression. [2] The Great Depression lasted over a decade and only was resolved by the unnatural stimulation of a world war. To put it another way, after an entire decade, the economic storm had not passed.

Certainly, with the advances in modern macroeconomics, especially in central banking to prevent the deflation that was so prevalent during the Great Depression, a similar slump is not likely to last a decade. In fact, the modern analogy is worse. Japan, the world's second largest economy at the time, suffered a balance-sheet recession very similar to our current crisis after the collapse of their own housing bubble in 1991. The swift growth of the 80s gave way to a “lost decade” of persistent deflationary pressures and little growth. Without a war to end the cycle, the slump continued into the 2000s, sparking a quantitative easing policy that only began to spark some growth with the height of the U.S. housing bubble. That growth was dashed in the global recession, giving way to more deflation to the extent that Japan intervened multiple times last year to prevent its exchange rate from soaring. In short, some twenty years later, the good times have not returned, and Japan still suffers from its collapsed housing bubble.

In this light, the idea that Europe can simply consolidate and wait for the good times to return seems ridiculous. When Europe is consolidating in response to the sovereign debt crisis, what theory or narrative suggests that growth will return over the next couple of years? Subduing protest in Italy and Greece with unelected technocratic governments may be tolerable if the reforms represent a painful one- or two-year transitional period, but if those reforms perpetuate a decade-long slump, it is purely oppressive.

Already experiencing riots and social unrest against the austerity policies of their unelected governors, one can only imagine the escalation if conditions merely worsen over an extended period of time. John Maynard Keynes argued in The Economic Consequences of the Peace following the onerous Treaty of Paris imposing reparations for World War I on Germany that deliberately beggaring a powerful modern nation sows the seeds for extreme politics and revolt. [3] The same critique can be made of the austerity policies now being imposed on Italy and Greece. Imposing catastrophic unemployment and perpetual depression with reforms required from abroad sows the seeds for nationalistic revolt. Sacrificing in the name of an international agreement such as the European Union will only last so long when extremist parties are able to offer hope for change.

Consolidation and liberal reform may be desirable to make the southern European countries more competitive in the long term, but how do we get to the long term? When will the long term arrive? How will Europe return to growth? These questions have been pushed aside in the panic of keeping the sovereign debt crisis contained. They are inescapable, critical, and pressing as reforms are forced on southern Europe in return for sovereign debt bailouts. How long will individual citizens be made to suffer for sins of foreign financiers and proliferate governments? Two years? Ten years? How long until it is no longer the most politically expedient option?

[1] http://blog-imfdirect.imf.org/2011/12/21/2011-in-review-four-hard-truths/

[2] http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/28/the-worse-than-club/

[3] https://sites.google.com/site/wapshottkeyneshayek/home/nicholas-wapshott-keynes-hayek-book-extract


Distilled Magazine The Global Crisis in Confidence

The Financial Crisis of Shareholder Primacy

Mike Marin

Unfortunately, most official accounts of the crisis, and how to avoid the next one, have missed the mark. They have overlooked the fundamental problem: a corporate governance model of financial institutions that the puts the private interest ahead of the public interest.

Financial institutions in most countries today are governed based on the theory of shareholder primacy. According this model, the institution’s management has one overriding duty: maximizing shareholder returns. True to its name, shareholder primacy puts shareholders in the driver’s seat; they choose the executives who will run the financial institution for shareholder benefit alone.

There are good reasons for supporting shareholder primacy. It is based on a healthy distrust of managers, who may be tempted to use the firm’s resources to pursue their own interests. Asking managers to balance the concerns of a number of different constituencies is just a license for them to abuse their power.

As a result, shareholder primacy tries to remove ambiguity by making managers beholden to a single group – the firm’s shareholders. In addition to imposing legal obligations on directors and officers, today’s dominant corporate governance regime ties executive compensation to the share price. This is designed to align the interests of shareholders and managers.

In theory, this makes sense, but in practice it’s a recipe for crisis, specifically in the context of financial institutions, where the business model is very different from that of an ordinary firm. Financial institutions profit from the “spread” between short- and long-term interest rates. In other words, they make money by lending at higher rates than they borrow. Thus, the best way for a bank to increase its profits is by increasing its “leverage” – that is, by making as many loans as possible, so long as they have funds available to borrow at a lower rate.

But the greater the bank’s leverage, the greater its risks. This is because if the bank’s debtors begin to default on some of the increased loans, or if there’s a perception that they might, the bank’s creditors (its depositors) will come running for their money all at once; hence the expression “bank run.” During a run, the “mismatch” between the bank’s assets and liabilities leaves it strapped for cash, and can ultimately lead to insolvency and failure. This is precisely what happened to the likes of Northern Rock just a few years ago.

What does leverage have to do with shareholder primacy? Since shareholders are interested in maximizing profit, they will encourage the financial institution, through its managers, to increase leverage, which will increase profits in the short term as described, but increase risk for a longer term. Given the legal obligations and financial incentives in shareholder primacy, they will likely oblige. If they don’t, the capital markets may see the firm as “undervalued,” i.e. not making the profits it would with more leverage, making it a target for a hostile takeover bid, which, if accepted, would result in the management team being replaced by a more shareholder-friendly one. Therefore, in a world where shareholders rule, the pressure on managers to satisfy the thirst for leverage and profit is tremendous.

We have known for decades, thanks to economists like John Maynard Keynes and Hyman Minksky, that financial institutions’ propensity for risk-taking is a key driver of economic instability. In order to maximize profit, banks look to progressively riskier assets, putting their faith in so-called “financial innovations,” which promise all the benefits of leverage without any of the risks.

For a time, rising asset prices validate bankers’ optimism, but eventually, this optimism leads to a bubble that bursts, exposing it as nothing less than delusional. In the recent crisis, the innovations of choice were based on a method called securitisation, which in theory should distribute risk efficiently. In practice, however, securitisation turned out to be a “weapon of mass destruction,” as legendary investor Warren Buffett put it.

The methods were new this time, but the pattern of behaviour was anything but. In the last five decades, we have seen repeated crises of this kind, albeit not of this magnitude and most often centered away from the global financial core. So why don’t we learn from history? Why don’t we heed the warnings?

The ideology of shareholder primacy has a lot to do with it. During the boom, when shareholders are getting rich, the system makes it almost impossible for managers to buck the trend. A manager cannot impose a system with less profits for shareholders.

In addition, managers are not only expected to pursue shareholders’ economic interests, but their political ones, as this can raise profits as well. Not surprisingly, therefore, the financial industry is notorious for its lobbying activity. In the 1980s, the City of London successfully pushed for the deregulation of the financial system. At the time, the reforms were dubbed the “Big Bang” due to the explosion in the capital markets that ensued; today, the moniker is still appropriate, but for entirely different reasons.

As a result, those who would leave shareholder primacy in place and put their faith in regulation to stop the next crisis are mistaken. They do not account for the financial industry’s political influence, which has been used to weaken regulation and “capture” those who enforce it. They are overconfident about the ability of regulators, regardless of their resources and independence, to keep up with financial innovation, especially given the unprecedented complexity and global scale of today’s financial system.

While stricter regulation – particularly with respect to capital requirements – is crucial, such reforms risk being undermined by the perverse incentives of shareholder primacy. A situation in which the regulatory system is butting heads with the corporate governance system is unsustainable and unlikely to promote economic stability in the long term.

A final problem with shareholder primacy is that it results in the wrong kinds of people being appointed to serve as directors and officers of financial institutions. The skills and temperament that maximize shareholder profits conflict with those that promote economic stability. As a result, shareholders prefer dealmakers to caretakers.

It is true that directors and officers of financial institutions must pass the Financial Services Authority’s “fit and proper” test. But, as Lord Turner concluded in his review of financial regulation in the UK, these standards were poorly enforced in the years leading up to the crisis. It was assumed – consistent with shareholder primacy – that financial institutions themselves were better placed to decide who should manage them. Not surprisingly, most bank executives picked for dealmaking didn’t understand the risks they were taking; some didn’t even have prior financial industry experience.

In order to prevent the next crisis, we need to do away with shareholder primacy for financial institutions. We need a new corporate governance model that recognizes the essential role that financial institutions play in the wider economy and society beyond the shareholders. This means, at the very least, that their managers must have a legal duty to consider the public interest and have the knowledge and temperament to discharge it accordingly.


Distilled Magazine The Global Crisis in Confidence

The Disconnected Society

Tom Barker

We live, we are told, in an increasingly connected world. The communications revolution, which began in earnest some twenty-five years ago, has brought us closer together, ‘shrunk’ our planet, and facilitated revolutions of an economic and political kind. Financial transactions take place at lightning fast speed, scenes from distant warzones are beamed daily into our living rooms, while friends and family are never further away than the reach to our mobile phones. The wireless signal and the fibre-optic cable are the railroads and highways of the twenty-first century.

The discourse of the ‘connected’, ‘networked’, ‘global’ society is a ubiquitous one, and understandably so. Technological advances and economic developments in recent decades have tended towards the quicker and easier movement of money, people and information about the globe, with massive implications for the ways in which human beings think about and organise their lives. And yet, conversely, for all the undoubted innovation, everywhere can be seen the signs of profound disconnection.

The basic social fabric has become frayed, and our sense of place and community diluted. While allowing for greater freedom and choice in how we spend our time, anonymity and isolation from the communities we live in has become a pervasive and worrying characteristic of modern life. The privatisation of time and space, facilitated in part by new digital devices, threatens to narrow rather than expand our horizons, shutting us off from novel encounters with the physical world and with other people – people and places just footsteps, rather than whole continents, away. There is something perverse about the suited forty-something too engrossed in his iPod to even acknowledge the bus driver on his way to work in the morning. To what extent can our digital gadgets, the internet, or even TV really be said to have brought us closer together when precious evenings, weekends, indeed, any spare scraps of time we might enjoy throughout the day, are squandered in the private glare of a liquid crystal display?

Disconnection is therefore about the degraded quality of our daily interactions with people and places, but it can also be identified in the troubled state of our political and economic life. In recent US and UK general elections, less than two-thirds of registered voters turned out to vote, while levels of trust in politicians and government remains low. Running deeper than anger at specific scandals such as MPs’ expenses, a familiar impression abounds of a political class removed both physically and culturally from the lives of ordinary people. Politicians ‘over there’ in Westminster or Washington pontificate from television screens and radio sets in a confident yet unconvincing idiom - promising much (cliché, reword), delivering little.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the parapet, politicians themselves complain of attaining office, confident of effecting worthwhile change, only to be confronted by the ‘rubber leavers’ of power (pull on them and nothing happens). National governments, embedded in webs of international regulation and under pressure from powerful corporations and markets, seem frequently powerless to achieve their stated goals, while global capital continues to uproot individuals and even entire communities from traditional types and patterns of work.

For many, modern work is a frustrating and unfulfilling experience, with long days in cramped offices book-ended by interminable commutes, alleviated only by the introspection of a book or iPod. Moreover, as the philosopher and political theorist Matthew Crawford has observed, much work in the modern knowledge economy has a dull, routinized, yet simultaneously “virtual” quality to it – as if disconnected from material reality itself. [1] In such a world it is increasingly difficult to identify or quantify an individual’s output or contribution to a company or organisation.

As these examples show, disconnection is spread across multiple domains – the cultural, the political, and the economic. Some might argue that the examples given above are in fact too disparate and diverse to be considered together as part of the same phenomenon, and indeed any over-arching theory seeking to explain a variety of different behaviours or phenomena risks over-simplification and the neglect of vital nuance. However, this point taken, it is possible to identify a number of key forces which drive the numerous examples of disconnection discussed so far.

First, rapid technological advancement, particularly over the course of the last generation, has opened the way for new encounters with the wider world, but in a way that is inherently remote and ethereal and perfectly compatible with sedentary and solitary lifestyles. A second crucial force, neoliberal capitalism has put enormous pressure on countries, firms and individuals, now operating in a more integrated and competitive global marketplace. People commonly complain of work-related stress, worrying about the security of their jobs, and generally being ‘time poor’. What’s more, democratic governments frequently cite the spectre of powerful supranational economic forces, such as the bond market, (rightly or wrongly) as forcing their hand, usually towards conservative economic and fiscal policies.

To technological development and marketisation we could add a third key force, not yet considered – bureaucratisation. Bureaucracies arise when human beings organise together to accomplish large-scale or complex tasks, such as administering and implementing public services, and can rightly be seen as a necessary tool to achieve important societal goals. But bureaucracies can lead to disconnection, distancing those who interact with them through formal procedures and impersonal modes of communication. This not only degrades the quality of our day-to-day lives, but subtly legitimises unacceptable forms of behaviour. It seems somehow more acceptable to cheat the faceless ‘system’ – to dodge taxes you owe, or claim benefits you’re not entitled to - when disconnected from real human relationships of trust and mutual obligation, particularly when everyone else seems to be doing it too.

These forces combine and interact to produce and reproduce the disconnected society, a society at once fiercely individualist – ‘my space, my time, my stuff’ – yet lacking in strong interpersonal bonds and fellow-feeling, pervaded by a sense of anxiety and powerlessness. In this regard, Matthew Crawford makes an important distinction between ‘autonomy’ and ‘agency’. Autonomy, he argues, although often giving a sense of power and ability, is really about self-regard and self-enclosure, “giving a law to oneself”, getting what you want when you want it (think the few, easy clicks it takes to buy a new pair of shoes online). By contrast,agency is a deeper and more demanding prospect, about engaging with a real and often unyielding world towards a desired goal or objective (think learning to master a musical instrument).

So, how to reconnect our disconnected society? In the coming years, as technology advances apace, both individuals and society must become more discerning about the level of technological intrusion they wish to embrace. The problems discussed here with regard to mobile phones and the internet will seem insignificant when, in not too many decades, we will be discussing the reality of electronic brain implants and high-tech body augmentation – and not just for medical purposes.

Even now there is good reason to redraw the boundaries of technological encroachment, to give up some of the time we spend crouched over a screen or plugged into headphones and give more to voluntary organisations, to exploring the natural world, or simply talking to each other - particularly given all that the new ‘science of well-being’ has told us about the benefits of these activities.

Then again, others have seen the potential of technological tools to reconnect us to now distant realms, notably the political process. The new UK government e-petitions are one prominent example, opening up the possibility of a parliamentary debate on any petition garnering more than a hundred thousand supporters. But while these may have their place, they too have a somewhat distant feel, more of an easy concession to arm-chair activism than a truly radical departure.

For a more effective remedy, we may have to reconsider the fundamental nature of human relationships. Oxford political theorist Marc Stears, one of the main progenitors of the much maligned and misrepresented ‘Blue Labour’ movement, has argued the need to promote ‘relational’ over ‘transactional’ ways of conduct. [2] Influenced by the work of Austrian philosopher Martin Buber, Stears has argued that the preponderance of transactional arrangements and interactions in modern society, of the cold, contractual kind we find in market exchanges and dealings with bureaucracies, have denigrated the quality of life and lie at the root of many of our problems. By contrast, relational forms of interaction are bonds of fellow-feeling and fraternity, and are more commonly to be found in civil society than in big business or big government. In this spirit, Blue Labour’s more famous (and controversial) father, Maurice (now Lord) Glasman, is famed for his work in setting up the radical community organisation London Citizens, which has campaigned, with notable success, for a living wage in the capital.

Yet it’s hard to ignore the limits of what a relational politics, driven by civil society, can realistically achieve. As Stears himself acknowledges, many people simply do not have the time to engage in an active community or political life, mostly due to the pressures of their job. If, like me, you’re convinced it’s the overbearing market rather than the overbearing state that lies at the root of many of the great problems of our time, it’s difficult to see how an active civil society movement, however dynamic and vocal it might be, can really take on the might of big capital and the market without the help of a strong, progressive state, with all the bureaucratic and legal architecture that will likely entail.

In anticipation of a likely criticism, it is important to end by stating that pointing to the various types and drivers of disconnection in modern society does not imply a rose-tinted view of the past, of a world in which small, tight-knit communities worked happily by day for a clearly defined, proximate notion of the common good, and quaffed cider merrily by night in the village hall. Pre-modern communities were blighted by existential threats that dwarf most of those faced by twenty-first century westerners – war, famine and disease. Our technological sophistication has alleviated many of the basic problems that beset humankind for millennia, and which continue to beset many people across the globe to this day.

No doubt the disconnection that arises between people and places through the (mis)use of certain technologies and the disconnection that arises from the impersonal, transactional nature of certain kinds of social technologies – markets and bureaucracies – is, to an extent, an inevitable result of living in large, complex societies made up of individuals and organisations with disparate, complex needs. But when disconnection becomes so evident in the nature of our basic day-to-day encounters with one another, in the widespread apathy and disinterest in democratic processes and in the generalised attitude of “it’s not my problem”, it’s time to stop and take note.

[1] M. Crawford (2010) The Case for Working with Your Hands: of Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good (Penguin: Viking).

[2] References to Prof. Marc Stears taken from a talk given by Stears, ‘After Blue Labour? State and Democracy on the British Left’ (Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, 16 February 2012).


Distilled Magazine The Global Crisis in Confidence

Confusions of Young Anonymous

David Dessin

We are no longer the post-ideological generation; we are now the generation at the heart of the fight-back.” Remember these words? After young Barnaby Raine cried them out at the Coalition of Resistance Conference in 2010, they quickly started to lead their own life on YouTube and the Internet. Columnists referred to them; journalists quoted them, they were mentioned in speeches and discussed in debates. Politicians applauded this herald of a new generation, cheered at the very idea that youngsters would finally become critical thinkers, begin to question, and fight the challenges of this world.

After a few months, however, the hype was over, and the journalists started to look for new quotes, for new examples of a rising level of critical mass in the younger generations. There have been some examples of similar youth protest, like the Indignados-movement and Occupy Wall Street. But these groups don’t seem to be able to form a clear identity; they don’t have a shared revolutionary program. It might be interesting to ask why youths and teenagers aren’t really revolting; why there is no shared consciousness of injustice.

Many commentators, journalists, and politicians have made the link between European and American protest movements and the revolutionary forces in Libya and Egypt last spring and summer. But there is an important difference. While the Muslim brothers were shouting for justice in the name of Allah, their Western colleagues lacked any common denominator. Looking back at the pictures and videos of European and American youth protest in the last year, there is only one image that was present at all of these occasions: the pale, characteristic Guy-Fawkes mask, so often used by an organisation called Anonymous.

What once was just a group of anarchist hackers has now slowly become perhaps the one symbol that youth protesters around the Atlantic share. Under this ‘name’, the last few years kids and teenagers from the US and the EU have started to organise public and digital protests, most famously against the Church of Scientology, but also against the arrest of Julian Assange and anti-piracy laws. Both at the Indignados and the Occupy Wall Street protests, it was an often-spotted ‘face’. Where does it come from? How is it possible that the only way this generation can mobilise itself is behind an anonymous mask?

Since 19th century secularisation, injustice has been the exclusive domain of ideologies, that is, modern sets of ideals that claimed to be less all encompassing then religion, but were still based upon a shared consciousness of injustice and a concrete program. However, in the 20th century, we have observed the end of ideologies. They have been transformed, ausgeheben - as Hegel would put it – into something new. Today ideologies are no more then means in service of the end of that nameless consciousness that we all seem to be sharing.

Ideologies are something we need, for example, to vote responsibly, just like political parties need an ideology to be able to govern responsibly. It doesn’t really matter which one it is, as both voters and politicians can switch sides without any problems.

In the Western countries liberalism, socialism, and communism all changed quietly into variations of the same nameless philosophy of a nameless individual. Some have tried to call this person a capitalist or a neoliberalist, or even a consumer, but the end of ideologies doesn’t mean that one ideology or philosophy replaced all the others. It means that people share a consciousness that eludes any effort to be named or shaped.

People today, especially youths don’t want to be categorised. A name or a label pins them down to a certain identity that might hinder them in future choices. Today, people no longer say they are liberals or socialists, Christians or atheists; they say that at that very moment in time, they may choose to be so. But this does not mean that tomorrow they might choose something entirely different. It is an anonymous consciousness that doesn’t have a real content on its own; it seems to exist mainly in the deconstruction of a shared identity, like ideologies and religions. As performed by the Monty Pythons and the House M.D.’s of this world, all of these names are continuously being unmasked as evil constructions that hold back the freedom of Anonymous.

There is a price to be paid for this anonymity. The result of it is – to begin with – the complete lack of a clear and shared understanding of who and what we are, of what we can hold on to or reject, what we can measure our value (or lack thereof), what we can love and fight. As anonymity is the only standard, one can only excel in anonymity. Teachers for example, have to remain anonymous. They have to offer all the knowledge their students require and then retreat as quickly as possible. Politicians have only to make sure the individual has all he or she needs to flourish, and then, they have to disappear. Being an example with authority would mean to limit the freedom of the student or the voter, it would mean to enforce his own view of the world on other people. Anonymous doesn’t allow that.

In the “crisis in education”, Hannah Arendt describes how kids need an authoritative adult to introduce them in the world. The teachers and parents take responsibility for the world, but teachers, parents, political leaders, and even artists and writers have a different attitude today. At best, they see themselves as coaches and facilitators, people who need to give their kids, students, voters, or fans just the basic information they need and then retreat as quickly as possible to let critical opinions emerge spontaneously. According to Arendt (as early as in 1954), education is the moment where children are prepared for passage to an adult world with clearly defined boundaries, sets of rules, images, and ideas defined by the specific identity of a society. But when a society lacks such an identity, in this post-ideology, post-identity age, how are children supposed to integrate into it?

“People learned a lot last Wednesday”, young Barnaby continued, describing how it was the police and the media who created the image of young vandals, not the protesters themselves. Perhaps this was true in 2010, but what happened next summer? What started with civil outrage ended as a series of full-fledged riots raging over the country between the 6th and 10th of August 2011.

During these riots, rampant looting, arson attacks of an unprecedented level, and hundreds of millions in property damage occurred. The images of young teenagers in hooded sweatshirts smashing and looting shops, carrying the spoils to their home,s and returning to get more went around the globe. The participants of the riots and the members of Anonymous are young, disaffected, without much sense of what the future will bring.

It is not just a future, economical or otherwise, they lack. After decades of deconstructing the past, of tradition and every kind of identity, we have created a generation without a name. This is the other face of Anonymous: young people who congregated on IRC (chat) networks and unruly discussion forums like 4chan, exposed to degrading and demeaning sexual images and ideas in the company of perverts and madman. There is no adult to tell them the difference between wrong and right, between good and evil; there are no shared ideas and images that can appeal to them; there is no tradition or institution that could provide the least orientation.

It may be a generation without future, but it is first and foremost a generation without adults, parents, without an identity, a shared and defined consciousness; a generation without a past.


Distilled Magazine The Global Crisis in Confidence

One State, Two Peoples: China and the US

Joseph Ataman

February saw the green lawns of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue play host to a meeting of two world leaders — two men in whose hands will soon rest the balance of world power. And yet, while the world’s media crowded the pristine grass, the true significance of the visit went largely unnoticed.

For all the attention paid to all that was said, little was really paid to who was actually doing the talking. Behind their titles the two men, Barack Obama and Xi Jinping, bear a striking similarity of background. A similarity that stems not from mere coincidence, but from an awareness of the staggering changes in the global political sphere induced by recent events.

This relative similarity of background, above all other factors, has been instrumental in their respective ascents to the apex of world power. I refer not to their exceptional educations or lengthy unblemished careers in the public service, but to their very identities. Obama is the first black man to have called the White House home and the first politician since Martin Luther King Jr. to have brought so much of the ‘black vote’ back to the ballot box and the political sphere. Xi is a ‘Crown Prince’ of the Communist regime and a politician with strong links to the military and civil service, qualifications that have been overlooked in favour of his rural roots. Xi was raised in the fields of Shaanxi province as a son of the Cultural Revolution, a fact the state machinery has been more than keen to publicize as almost a guarantee of rural support.

Why the sudden desire to pander to the tastes of the poorest demographics? For decades they have been ignored, why should this need be felt in two nations of such polar-opposition?

As will be shown, both China and the US have been converging on a course of widespread dissent across all but the top percentiles of their populations. A more representative choice of leader may be a short-term cure but the underlying grievances of both nations’ lower and growing middle classes must be addressed.

"We’ll fight them in the fields… and in the classroom?"

In two nations that pride themselves on their supposed social mobility, the reality is a harsh contrast. Furthermore, it is increasingly a discriminatory access to education that is the cause of this.

China is a country of two peoples. The repressed poor of the rural interior, increasingly forced into a migratory limbo and the lucky, educated few of the urbanite middle class. In 1990, the politburo spent a mere 2.1% of GDP on education. By 2003 this had barely reached 3.4%, an embarrassment for a nation viewing itself as a world leader, 0.6% behind the developing world average. Unlike its brother nation, Vietnam, where policy is geared towards income redistribution social welfare, in China education is still seen by many as a private benefit that enables individuals to improve their lives. But this policy is beset by double standards. While urban municipalities subsidize upwards of 60% of education costs, rural schooling receives a mere 13% leaving parents to cover the expense of maintenance and even higher wages when teachers strike for more pay.

Yet more galling is the open bias against such students who are expected to attain higher university entrance marks than their urban counterparts. This is despite an undeniably poorer quality of education and opportunity. New social bounds are being set by the cost and location of education, a situation mirrored in the US. A reality not lost on America’s new disenfranchised and one that grows on the minds of China’s poor as controls slacken.

On America’s ‘golden shores’, education and opportunity are now the reserve of the well-placed and well-off, no longer the birthright of the masses. For the first time ever, young Americans are worse-off than their parents, in terms of income and future prospects. Debt-ridden, poorly educated and stuck in a financial system that has grown to exploit the marginal, Americans have lost the pioneering spirit that long-defined them. While previous generations were happy to uproot in search of work and opportunity, today’s America is a sedentary one. For many, a college education is now viewed more as a burden than a dream.

"Manufacturing builds goods, finance builds dreams."

The middle classes have just as much reason for their anger. More is asked of them to support a system that neither recognizes their contribution nor directs the profit from their wealth to those that need it most. The citizens of China’s East coast differ little from those of the United States’. They drive the same car, iPhone in hand, dream of the same future and are exploited as ruthlessly as each other. All that may differ between them is how long their patience will last.

Even in a world of future Oriental dominance the future looks bleak for Chinese graduates with jobs as scarce as ever. State frameworks are incapable of dealing with the growing labour-surplus as millions of graduates fight tooth and nail for the few jobs her nascent service industry can provide. This pressure will only mushroom as the nation reaches the final stages of development. Major policy changes are all that will accommodate this transition. Especially so, as with every passing day the burden of the ageing population they must support grows.

In a society where familial ties are as strong as they are in China, welfare for the elderly has largely been overlooked. A national Ponzi scheme has been constructed upon the legacy of the one-child policy, leaving the young to support a disproportionate number of elders with an ever-increasing life expectancy. The Chinese bear this without much complaint at present, silenced by the ancestral duty so important to Eastern cultures. However this cannot be relied upon to stem protest. As the burden grows, the back of the Chinese will break.

Similar issues exist in the ‘West’ as migrant populations swell and in times of austerity taxpayers question the value of their money being spent on harbouring idle or new populations. Governments have to act to re-invent the welfare state not as a means of subsistence and free handouts but as an insurance for the unfortunate and a support to the most needy. Leaders have a duty of care not only over their people, but also over the money they contribute towards their homelands. For too long have the desires of the largest contributors to public funds been the least acknowledged.

The economic crash, the exposure of the flagrant arrogance of the finance industry and the consequent protection endowed upon the industry by the state have let loose a storm of protest from the America middle classes. It was their money in pension funds and savings that was, and still is, gambled on a daily basis with flagrant regard for the consequences. Western governments were largely seen to have failed their peoples in allowing and encouraging such behaviour within their favoured industry: finance. More so as it was the taxpayer that has funded the revival of the very banking culture that led to the crash. The benefits of which are purely for the enjoyment of the executives who engineered this ‘platinum protection’. Private gains have come at public loss.

This has led to the ‘Occupy’ movements, stealing back political space for the masses but while this is seen as a typical ‘protest’ movement little is likely to come of it. Only through positive action on the part of the professional classes, through the voices and votes of the middle classes will noticeable change occur.<

"Mirror, mirror on the wall…"

China and America have long averted this issue coming to light through increasingly unsustainable means. China has repressed endlessly, not only through force in the fields of Guangdong and the crowds of Tiananmen but by removing those tools of change used so effectively in the Arab Spring. Facebook and Twitter, the new windows of the world have been boarded up. America has done the same through the poverty that blights its shores, starving its poorest of opportunity and equality.

America has distracted its people with a lifestyle of want. Just as the consent of Chinese urbanites is guaranteed by their GDP’s inexorable 8% growth, the American people have rested satisfied in their society of consumption. The very society that rested on the foundations of debt that finally collapsed in our recession.

Trying a long-trusted method, it seems as if China is looking to military success to continue its campaign of appeasement. With its eyes set on the Pacific Ocean amid a vast program of military expansion this may represent a contingency against the difficulties that the Chinese authorities foresee in maintaining the all-important status quo.

"The professional proletariat"

It is the hidden anger of the middle classes that will determine the future path that these nations take. The bourgeoisie won revolutionary France and it is only this professional power base that has the political sway to force a new focus for the future. The poor have long been ignored and, I believe, will long continue to be treated thus. As China struggles to sustain economic growth while moving towards a ‘green’ economy and America fights to maintain its global hegemony the potential for change and instability will only increase. How this opportunity or risk is managed will depend on the actions the ‘squeezed middle’ of these two great nations.

For Obama and Xi the choice is simple, act to avert this or suffer the unpredictability of the ensuing instability. Create a fairer, more equal, stronger society and placate the discord that threatens us with a future of unknowns.


Distilled Magazine The Global Crisis in Confidence

Crisis for the Young, Dynamic Democracy of Taiwan

Anonymous contributor

Taiwan has often been touted as the most dynamic democracy in Asia. With a consistently high average voter turnout of approximately 77% over the past five direct presidential elections since 1996, the island may hold one of the most participatory democratic processes in the world. On January 14th, Taiwan held its 5th presidential election. This year, the island had three candidates competing for the presidency: the incumbent Ma Ying-Jeou of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), Tsai Ing-Wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and Soong Chu-Yu of the People’s First Party (PFP).

In the end, the incumbent Ma retained the presidency with a surprisingly large margin of 800,000 votes, or 51.6% of the support from the voters; while the biggest opposition candidate, Tsai, lost the election, obtaining just 45.6% of the votes. Tsai in her concession speech, said to her tearful supporters:

We concede and accept the decision made by the Taiwanese people. I know that many of our supporters feel heartbroken as they listen to me say this. However I would like to congratulate President Ma, and I hope that in the next four years, he listens to the voices of the people, governs with diligence, caring equally for every citizen, and absolutely not disappoint the people’s expectations.

Many in and outside of Taiwan who had been following the election took Tsai’s gracious acceptance of defeat as a sign of Taiwan’s democratic maturation over the past decade. They called this peaceful election a victory for democracy in Taiwan. Half of the people living on the island, and many overseas Taiwanese however, would beg to differ.

If one takes a closer look at the re-elected incumbent party in Taiwan, one may have second thoughts about referring to this year’s election as a demonstration of the maturation of Taiwanese democracy. First, one should know that the KMT’s full name is the Chinese Nationalist Party. If one has heard of the Chinese Civil War after the Second World War, this name might ring a bell. Yes, the KMT is the same party that, despite political and material support from the United States and the U.S.S.R., managed to antagonize its own people in China and be defeated by the “bandits” who, wearing red scarfs, fought with inferior weapons. The KMT and its supporters have since remained in Taiwan and had been for over four decades preparing the island as a military base of operation to retake their motherland: China.

Throughout this period many Taiwanese local elites and dissidents against the KMT’s authoritarian rule were either killed or jailed because the Chinese Nationalists, who arrived in Taiwan after their defeat by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) (comprising 15% of the population on the island), did not want any localization with the Formosan culture. Integrating into the indigenous culture of Taiwan was seen as an obstacle to the objective of returning to China. During the 228 Massacre, in the second year of Republic of China’s rule in Taiwan, an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 Taiwanese were killed over a 2 month time span.

In the next 40 years, the KMT would rule the island under the counter-revolutionary “White Terror”, during which up to 140,000 people were jailed and thousands executed. Up until the last years of the '80s, famous freedom advocates and political thinkers continued to be jailed, assassinated, and compelled to self-immolation. It was not until the early '90s, when a local Taiwanese — Lee Teng-hui, who managed to climb up the ladder of the very exclusive Chinese Nationalist Party to become President — did the population see real hope for democratisation.

After the end of Lee Teng-hui’s presidency and his expulsion from the party (due to his efforts to localize it), the KMT still holds its main mandate to retake the motherland, China, and holds very little resemblance to a democratic political party in a healthy democratic system. It has only been 16 years since Taiwan had its first presidential election. The party is still controlled by politicians who were indoctrinated with the mandates the KMT brought from China and were taught to resist localising with the people of Taiwan. Ma Ying-Jeou himself is a traditional Chinese Nationalist. He has published several papers urging for ultimate reunification with China and opposes presidential elections by the people of Taiwan.

It is ironic that such a person could become a president elected directly by a nation of people, the same people whom he tried to deny electoral rights. With regards to the issue of Taiwan’s sovereignty, when the DPP government held a referendum to let the people of Taiwan decide on whether to stop applying for UN membership under “Republic of China” (of which the application would be swiftly rejected as the UN only recognizes one China) and start submitting the application under the name “Taiwan”, the KMT urged its supporters to boycott the referendum. They spent thousands of dollars worth of advertisement campaign with the paradoxical slogan: “to protect democracy, refuse to participate in the referendum”. The referendum came to a null as the turnout did not exceed 50%.

Although it is not explicitly stated, it is visible through the KMT and its supporters’ actions that these people see themselves as the rightful rulers of the Republic of China and that the DPP is a mere source of disruption, rather than a party of compatriots in political competition, for that unquestionable legitimacy. After multiple decades of one party rule, where becoming a party member was in most cases a prerequisite for a post in education, military, and the rest of the civil service industry, the KMT has been able to build a loyal army of voters that continue to vote for their milk cow, the party. During the KMT-era, party employees enjoyed the benefits of bureaucrats. Until this day, all party-employees who retired before 1987 continue to receive 18% interest rates on their designated bank accounts, courtesy of the Taiwanese tax payers. It is not surprising that the KMT has a strong base of “iron votes”.

Many praise the peaceful process of the 2012 Taiwan presidential election from start to finish. However, one who truly understands the nuance of the political and societal structure of this young democracy would know that the reason for this peace is simple: the KMT always wins. If one turns the clock back to 2004, when the KMT last lost a presidential election, the then chairman and now honorary chairman of the KMT, Lien Chan, led a violent riot to siege the presidential office. He incited the rioters by crying: “Our Country has been stolen! Being the president of Taiwan is nothing, everyone has the right to kill him.” Several party members, like Lien, also urged and appealed to supporters on television to kill the former DPP president, Chen Shui-bian, on sight. Since Taiwan’s democratization, the DPP and its supporters have not conducted organized violence when losing elections. Therefore last month’s calm and peaceful end to the democratic process may have been possible because the DPP had lost, not because the KMT and its supporters have matured as citizens of a democratic country.

Since its arrival on the island of Formosa after the Second World War, the KMT had taken property, businesses, and land from the locals by force and some of these assets instead of becoming nationalized assets they become party assets as the government was one of an authoritarian one-party state. Up until the late '90s the KMT was the richest political party in the world. Although today it is unknown whether the party still holds this title, it is known that the KMT continues to possess real estate properties all over the world, and that it continues to possess an immense amount of liquid and illiquid assets. For example, in 2010, the party’s income from corporate investments amounted to approximately 100 million dollars, accounting for over 82% of the party’s total income. Looking at this, it is hard to determine whether the KMT possesses interests for the country it serves as a political party or a corporate entity that serves its economic benefactors and beneficiaries.

It is thus no surprise that while the national GDP of Taiwan continues to grow at a healthy rate over the past four years while the average salary in Taiwan remains stagnant, and that social welfare spending continues to be low while the wealth distribution gap continues to rise. Moreover, in a country where ⅔ of all companies have investments in China, it is no surprise that the KMT disregards all concerns of national security and pushes vigorously for market integration with China, a nation that has over 1,000 missiles targeting Taiwan. Assuming that you, a reader of this piece published in the United Kingdom, bear the values of democracy in the Western sense of the word: would you not be concerned if your supposedly democratic system elected a political party of the KMT-kind?

The business ties and thus the direct party economic ties with China are crucial to the KMT’s electoral victory in last month’s election. Several business tycoons who possess large production facilities as well as a market base in China appealed to the Taiwanese public to vote for the KMT in order to maintain their favorable business ties with China or, as they put it, Taiwan would suffer the “consequences” for not doing so. These individuals include Foxconn’s Terry Gou, HTC’s Cher Wang, and Want Want Group’s Tsai Eng Meng. Tsai, in particular, has been buying up, since 2008, media corporations in order to bring the Taiwanese people closer to China, in an effort to see the merger between the two countries in his lifetime.

Some observers see all of this business support as a deliberate maneuver from China. This is not an unreasonable suspicion as there was one infamous case in 2005 where a well-known, pro-Taiwan independence billionaire, who had been condemned by China as a separatist, suddenly put out a public letter calling for unification across the strait for the greater good of the Chinese nation, while one of his managers residing in China was in a situation of physical harm that was never disclosed to the public. The business tycoon has since shut himself from making political comments.

As China sees the Taiwan strait issue as a civil dispute between the Chinese Communists and the Chinese Nationalists, the Taiwanese local DPP is consequently seen as a distraction, intervening between the two "proper" Chinese political parties trying to sort out a six decades long domestic conflict. In this regard the CCP and the KMT share the same view. A world with one China in dispute is better than one indisputable China and one indisputable Taiwan. The KMT on the domestic front has also repeatedly used the threats of both severed economic ties with China and military action to instill fear into the Taiwanese public into voting for it.

This is an eerie thought. If the economic integration has become so deep between Taiwan and China that the Chinese government is able to use Taiwanese business interests in order to collaborate with and force a local political party to sway political outcomes, how have the principles of sovereign democracy won?

With its mandate to unify the one great Chinese nation, and with the direct economic interests of the KMT in China, it is difficult to see any common ground between the KMT and the local Taiwanese people. One can even go further to say that, it is in everyone's interests for the KMT to reconcile with the CCP and bring Taiwan under China's (PRC) control. If the KMT plays it cards right with Beijing and brings Taiwan slowly under PRC control, the implementation of a model similar to the one country different systems policy for Hong Kong could be conceivable. The KMT would then no longer need to fear losing power to the DPP or any other political force in Taiwan. It can then enjoy political success unchallenged, and continue to reap economic benefits exploiting both Taiwanese and Chinese resources.

From the eyes of those who are not completely informed of the political dynamics of Taiwan, and perhaps for those who consciously blind themselves from the grave political implications of the KMT’s win, it is easy to tout the 2012 Taiwan election as a triumph for democracy on the island. However, for those who do have a thorough understanding of the island and care about the sovereignty of this yet nascent democratic system, it is hard to suppress a feeling of unease and a sense of crisis.


Distilled Magazine The Global Crisis in Confidence

Keep calm and carry on(wards)

Bram De Ridder

“If the euro explodes, Europe would explode. It’s the guarantee of peace in a continent where there were terrible wars.” With this statement Nicolas Sarkozy acted as spokesman for a new approach to the Eurozone crisis, one that hinted at the repetition of a dreadful European past. He was joined in this strategy by Angela Merkel and Herman van Rompuy, who respectively declared that “History has taught us that countries with a joint currency don't go to war with one another”, and that "Together with the euro the Union will fall, and with the Union our greatest guarantee of peace”. Apart from the obvious rhetoric behind such statements, we can indeed wonder whether or not there is a danger that things are going to become a lot worse. Disturbing as this might seem, the historical record to which these politicians allude nevertheless allows us to argue that as long as we keep our reactions relatively moderate, a disaster surely does not need to come about.

Admittedly, on first sight it all looks very serious. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the entire world has been placed on its guard. After the US housing bubble burst in 2007, experts gradually converged on the same point: we are living in a period of crisis. This time the threat is not related to potential nuclear Armageddon but to what is feared to be the collapse of the global economic system. Despite the fact that every country is predicted to suffer the consequences, Europe and North America seem to experience a more serious feeling of unease. On top of their economic problems a crisis of confidence matured, a feeling that build on other doubts about the fundaments of western society. Some European countries struggled with their increasingly right-wing or nationalist election results. Current Republican preliminaries in the U.S. are increasingly determined by which candidate can afford to produce the most damaging television commercials. The European Union stumbled through the sovereign debt crisis, resulting in doubts about the entire project of integration. The climate conference in Durban had as its most important effect the withdrawal of Canada from the Kyoto agreements. After nearly a decade of fighting, foreign forces left Iraq and are leaving Afghanistan without any guarantees about the stability of both countries. And most recently the ‘occupy’ and ‘Indignado’ movements, which tried to deal with exactly these feelings of unease, were seen but not heard.

All this created, especially amongst the younger generations, a feeling of uncertainty about the structures that so far have constituted our world. Attempts to describe what this crisis in confidence is all about are very confused. Nobody seems able to grasp what is going on, in effect immobilizing people’s ability to react. Indeed, so far we only seemed capable of stabilizing these old structures without having a clue about what actually undermines them, let alone how to create change. This in turn makes people even more uncertain about the road ahead: will we ever be able to solve this, or will our own indecisiveness lead to an even worse crisis, maybe even one of the kind Sarkozy alluded to? In order to answer this question, we could try to have a look at history in a less demagogic way. By comparing the current crisis in confidence with other moments of widespread turmoil and uncertainty, we can widen our view and try to reassure ourselves. Historians however are by nature suspicious of such conduct: most (correctly) believe every situation to be unique and strongly oppose the idea that history can be turned into a guidebook for contemporary issues. Indeed, the past can’t be use as a ‘crisis in confidence for dummies’. Nevertheless, a way around this suspicion can be found if we considered history more as a novel: the story it tells will always be different from your own, but you might find it relevant none the less. You might even use it to create certain points of reference in order to assess your own position, much as generations of intellectuals (amongst whom historians) have done with literary classics. So by making the comparison between the tale of the past and the impression of the present, we might be able put our own ‘crisis’ into perspective.

Three periods might serve our purposes: the sixteenth century Reformation, the French Revolution and the interbellum period. Other crises might spring to mind, but these are often too constrained in time or magnitude. The chosen cases fit all of the definitions for a ‘crisis’ recorded in the Oxford Dictionary, descriptions which also suit our contemporary period. Each of these three periods was ‘a time of intense difficulty or danger’ and ‘a time when a difficult or important decision must be made’. They even fit the more medical explanation of a crisis being ‘the turning point of a disease when an important change takes place, indicating either recovery or death’, a definition which people like Sarkozy seem to use when making statements as the one mentioned. Most importantly however, all three periods were not just mere crises; they were also moments when a serious lack of confidence was displayed.

Let us start with the Reformation. Again using a definition from the Oxford Dictionary, this was a crisis of confidence because it constituted a disruption of ‘the state of feeling certain about the truth of something’. When Martin Luther pinned his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church and the protestant movement took off, the European world became a whole less certain place. Roman Catholicism, until then considered to be the only possible version of the truth, suffered under a vicious ideological attack. Protestantism had its predecessors, but in the sixteenth century criticism of Rome seemed to have hit a serious reservoir of doubt. Decades of papal excesses, clerical infighting and widespread neglect of Christian values found in Luther a first focal point from which protest evolved in various directions. The spread of Protestantism however made sure that people in for example the Netherlands or France had to choose between two different divine truths, resulting in genuine uncertainty and social tensions. This ideological turmoil got caught up with political struggles, with radicals on both sides making a compromise impossible through acts such as the Iconoclastic Fury or the Bartholomew’s Night murders. Because of such events the moderates were squeezed out of the debate, finally resulting in bloody conflicts like the Eighty Year’s War.

The French Revolution was a crisis of confidence on a different account. A second definition of confidence is namely ‘the feeling or belief that one can have faith in or rely on someone or something’. In 1789, the uproar was in the first place directed against the monarchy, an old institution that had ignored its responsibilities towards the people. Because of hunger and ill-treatment faith in and reliance on the capabilities of the king had been eroded. These feelings came to an outburst at the start of the Revolution, when people decided to act upon their feelings of unease about institutions that seemed to have failed them. The philosophies of Rousseau and Montesquieu provided the alternatives on which a new society could be build. However, after the initial phase of the revolution these ideas were interpreted in all sorts of ways, and the Republican movement radicalized rapidly. The results were ‘la Terreur’, a few years of chaos, and a government spinning totally out of control. Only when the most extreme ideas were removed and the awakened energies were directed outwards did some stability again take hold in France. Unfortunately for Europe this French stability came under the form of the Napoleonic Wars.

The third period to be considered is the interbellum era. This crisis of confidence started right after the first World War, or maybe even during the war. The conflict had shaken Europe onto its foundations by replacing its presumed enlightenment and benevolence with barbaric fighting and mass destruction. What essentially had been hit was Europe’s ‘feeling of self-assurance arising from an appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities’. The reaction to this was either a strong belief in the principles of world government as forwarded by President Wilson, or a feeling of disillusionment and doubt. This last stance is perfectly illustrated by the Cambridge Scholar E.H. Carr. In The Twenty Years’ Crisis he tried to reconcile his old liberal beliefs with the bare workings of military power he had observed before and during the war. Added to this was uncertainty about the diminishing British imperial power, and the result is as much a classic of International Relations as an example of the general European crisis of confidence. On top of this moral disillusionment came the famous economic problems of Black Tuesday. The Weimar Republic, which had never generated much confidence anyway, could not cope with the situation and the German people chose the radical way forward. At the same time the other European countries remained highly insecure about their strength and eventually played the card of appeasement. The results of both policies need little elaboration.

Clearly, all of these tales fitting the ‘crisis-in-confidence genre’ have ended in major upheaval and suffering. So were Sarkozy, Merkel and Van Rompuy right to give us their warning? Do we need to brace ourselves for more rough times? I believe this is not necessarily the case. The only reason why these periods of uncertainty spun out of control was not because of the lack of confidence itself, but because additional factors intervened. The religious troubles of the sixteenth and seventeenth century got caught up with the political designs of for example Cardinal Richelieu. The French Revolution derailed because of ideological hardliners and was transformed by the ambition of Napoleon. The Second World War was mainly made possible by the rise of the figure of Hitler and the ideology he presented. The importance of such factors becomes clear if one notices that other crises of confidence have taken place without major destabilization. Vietnam was a knock-out blow for American self-assuredness, but because no additional events or tendencies got involved it nowadays can be considered a mere bump in the road. What we however should remember of these historical cases is that a crisis of confidence not necessarily results in serious turmoil, but that it creates a dangerous condition into which other problems can get entangled. In this respect is the current crisis already a grade worse than Vietnam because it combines a lack of confidence with economic turmoil.

Critical therefore will be our own behaviour: will we add something more to this already dangerous mix? Will we chose radical solutions should they be presented to us? As all three cases show, this is the worst possible choice we could make. We have to remain wary and critical of tendencies such as observed in our three ‘novels’. But as the policy of appeasement has also demonstrated, being careful shouldn’t mean being conservative or taking only small measures. Things do have to take a new direction under the current circumstances; we only have to make sure that the cure is not worse than the disease. Current generations have increasingly taken as self-evident the values on which our society is build, or have at least lost feeling of what they can cost. This getting out of touch might still correct itself, but the risks are great if it doesn’t. This makes it all the more important that we keep our guard up and avoid getting carried away by persons, ideologies or ambitions playing on our uncertainty whilst we are building the road ahead. Human agency therefore remains critical: even today we still hold the future in our own hands, for better or for worse.


Distilled Magazine The Global Crisis in Confidence

Democracy and the Arab Uprisings

Simon Clément

In February 2011, in the impoverished southern Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, Muhamad Bouazizi, a young street seller set himself on fire to protest the unfair treatment he had received from a female police officer. His self-immolation unleashed the most intense and surprising social movement that swept through the Arab world in the past 50 years. In less than a year, the autocratic, corrupt, and violent regimes of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen were brought down by a wave of young, mostly secular, and liberal crowds calling for dignity, freedom, justice, and democracy. Consequently, the monarchies of Jordan and Morocco quickly liberalised in order to avoid the fate of their neighbours. Bahrain, Algeria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia saw widespread protest. Syria is still in the midst of a full-scale revolution.

The reasons for the discontent of the populations of the Middle East were deeply rooted in decades of tyranny: the Middle East was one of the most autocratic region of the world. However, the recent food riots, the world economic crisis, the use of social media, and the widespread connectivity to satellite television (especially Al Jazeera) played a major role in initiating these revolutions. Nevertheless, the Arab street’s feeling of being deprived of its basic dignity by corrupt, despotic, and clientelist regimes is probably the element that allowed the spark lit by Mr Bouazizi to ignite the entire region into a full scale popular historical movement.

The combination of young, liberal and mostly secular crowds and demands for justice, freedom and democracy was perceived very positively in the Western media and supported by European and American public opinions. For the first time, the general perception of the protestors sweeping through the streets of the Arab world was not one associated with religious radicalism, obscurantism and uncontrolled eruptions of violence but rather, with a genuine western oriented craving for democracy and liberalism. Support for these popular revolts spanned the West, from Paris to Los Angeles, from Washington to Berlin. In a few weeks, media outlets and the general public had even forgotten these very regimes that were being overthrown live on Al Jazeera had received unconditional support from western governments for years.

However, several months later, an unexpected development came to disrupt this rosy image. Political Islam emerged as the most popular political force of the post revolutionary Arab world. Moderate Islamic parties overwhelmingly won each election in which they participated, and in countries where the population has not yet gone to the ballot box they seem to represent the most popular alternative to the corrupt regimes of the past.

Those parties were not the ones that initiated the revolutionary movements. They were not at the forefront of the demonstrations and only joined the protest in its later stages when the hardest work had already been done. However, Islamist parties have been extremely popular among the lower socio-economic stratum of the population for years. Indeed, during the decades of dictatorship, most regimes secured the interest of a small elite through despotism and corruption at the expense of the majority. The Islamic movements were at the time, the only ones providing basic educational, health and social services to the population. Those years of hard grassroots work done by dedicated volunteers under harsh conditions and repression are today being rewarded in the ballot box.

Those movements often started as radical religious groups that advocated the use of violence as a mean to overthrow the autocratic Middle Eastern regimes that in their views corrupted the values of Islam.

In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood committed numerous terrorist actions; one of its offshoot movements is responsible for the assassination of President Sadat. In Tunisia, the Nahda movement engaged in low-level violence against the Ben Ali regime. In Libya, Islamist movements violently opposed Gaddafi’s rule.

Yet, contrary to expectations, these movements have renounced violence in the past few years and have started describing themselves as moderate political Islamic parties. Claiming inspiration from the Turkish AKP (Freedom and Justice) Islamist party now in power in Ankara, they embraced the values of democracy as well as the rights of women and of minority groups. As they were elected to power in Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco, these parties have reiterated their commitment to democracy and appear to have gained legitimacy and trust from the international community and the local secular elites. But, as in the case of the Iranian Islamic Revolution, history has shown that what appear to be moderate forces can under specific circumstances radicalise once in power, becoming increasingly totalitarian.

In countries where Islamic parties have a history of moderation and where there are strong local or international counter powers, it seems that political Islam will embrace the democratic transition and adhere to the combination of democracy and religion that the populations are demanding. As such, Political Islam would seem to follow the path of the Turkish AKP in embracing democratic values at home and moderation in the international arena, while advocating a Muslim identity and prioritizing the country’s and the region’s interests over the western oriented agenda of their predecessors.

In Egypt, the army, given that it is not overthrown or fails to hijack the revolution, should attempt to moderate the Islamist parties that won roughly 70% of the votes (including almost 30% for the more radical Salafi movement). Furthermore, the Muslim Brotherhood, that came out on top at the ballot box has now been integrated into the political system for years and has tremendously moderated its discourse. Finally, the economic dependency of the country on the US entails a strong desire for any government in power to soften its position so as not to antagonize its main financial supporter.

In Tunisia, even though the Nahda party had been banned by the Ben Ali regime, the Islamists renounced violence years ago. Moreover, the strong secular tradition of the country combined with the influence of the powerful (and mainly secular) trade unions seems to preserve the country from a radical Islamic hijacking of the revolution. Tunisia strongly depends on France for trade and tourism creating an important incentive for moderation for any party in power.

In Morocco and Jordan, the wide legitimacy that both kings enjoy among their citizens combined with the political integration of Islamist parties seem to safeguard both regimes, for now.

In Syria, even though it is still too early to make any real predictions, it appears that the Islamist groups that make up an important part of the opposition to the Assad regime are under the influence of Turkey and would possibly be moderated by Ankara should they take power after the regime of Bashar Al-Assad falls.

Yet, in Libya and in Yemen the situation appears more complicated. In Yemen, the corrupt government of Saleh has sidelined Islamist parties for years and elements of Al Qaeda have been battling the government for just as long. Various militias, tribal groups and local insurrections have challenged the authority of the central government, increasing the risk of the country sliding into chaos. Despite the strong influence of its neighbour, Saudi Arabia, it appears that Yemen is a prime target for radical Islamic movements. We can expect that the chances of either general anarchy or of a hijacking of the revolution by Islamic groups or the military seems rather high.

In Libya, the total ban on political freedom during the Gaddafi era gave Islamist groups no alternative but violence to make their voices heard. Libyan Islamic movements therefore appear to be less likely to respect a democratic transition than in Tunisia or in Egypt. Some of those groups are today in control of key areas of the country and do not appear to be willing to relinquish the power they gained through the strength of their guns. Moreover, the total absence of any form of democratic tradition in the country combined with the current chaos is favourable ground for an Islamic take over.

The Arab Spring is not over and we do not yet know where it will lead the region. What started with a simple, but powerful act of defiance in Tunisia has now led to movements that are the bane of regimes and a hope to its subjects. Whatever its outcome ends up being, it is an event that has changed the face of the Middle East forever. The main conclusions that can be drawn from it is that the people of the region have had enough of their autocratic and debauched regimes; they want to be able to control their fate, have governments that represent their will, and do so without Western intervention. Democracy will probably take years to be fully functioning especially in large and populous countries like Egypt. As for the French Revolution, the countries might have to go through bloody and autocratic stages before they can find the form of government that best suits them. However, this is the path the region has chosen and the outside world should respect and accompany it without interfering as long as this process does not threaten the world stability. For the first time since independence, the people of the Arab World have their destiny in their hands. Let’s hope they use their hands well.


Distilled Magazine The Global Crisis in Confidence

Culture and Social Responsibility

George Bickers

Tristan Tzara, the great Dadaist, once stated that "People envisage the (ever-impending) annihilation of art. Here they are looking for a more art-like art." This simple statement focuses our attention on not only what one considers "art", but also its purpose within our society.

Should we as individuals and as a society be producing art that is for art's sake alone?

Whilst this is a perfectly acceptable ambition, I assert that it falls short of achieving anything substantive. At its base, the cultural tools of a society — the art forms it produces — are mutli-layered. One's enjoyment of art can access all these layers, from simple distraction to profound appreciation. But we are primarily concerned with what one takes away from the cultural tools that we as individuals access on a daily basis.

The more that you talk about a person as a social construction or as a confluence of forces or as fragmented or marginalized, what you do is you open up a whole new world of excuses. (Prof. Robert Solomon, University of Texas, Austin)

Solomon expresses a necessary and vital form of cultural engagement and criticism; a form that recognises that the individual, for both their own sake and that of society, is not simply a product of quotidien power structures but is instead an active, involved, socially conscious, and most importantly, responsible individual. One who is a member of a reciprocal community that is freed from the prevailing organic and artificial groupings that hold the individual in place.

First, the individual must examine the structures in which he or she is constituted. We can see "organic" structures that are in place by providence of birth – one's local community, a social or cultural group, one's nationality or country of origin. Alongside - and by definition within - we see "artificial" structures that are created by a need of those within the organic structures to facilitate perceived day to day needs or wants, or for us by externalised forces. These extend to an individual's educational peer groups, or an individual's political leaning and association with others who share similar views, or even the interactions that form around an individual's work place.

The single factor that unifies all these structures is that they can be transcended in one form or another. We traditionally believe, for example, that one is very likely to remain in the class one was born in, but one can see it is not impossible - albeit not particularly likely - to move from one class to another. The first key part of this style of cultural engagement is to recognise and note its transcendental nature.

In realising this, we confront our next challenge. The critic should notice that in transcending these traditional power structures, the object of criticism has escaped the critic's definition and renders critics irrelevant. The challenge lies in accepting that this 'school' of thought we are describing is itself a confining structure and so to be effective it must recognise that it can and must be transcended. By making this assertion, we find ourselves in somewhat Dadaist territory. The 'school' runs the risk of showing "...that you can perform contrary actions at the same time, in one single, fresh breath" (Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto, 1918).

We must address this. The school itself represents a type of power structure. Just because the community that the school advocates seeks to escape from the confines of the power structures the community sees around it, the school itself is not rendered irrelevant. The function of the school is to highlight and facilitate the methods in which the community is both achieved and propagated, ensuring the community's escape from those power structures that hold it back, and ensuring its autonomy. The school recognises both its position and its potential opposition to the ideal community, but in this recognition it is able analyse and advance the ideals it seeks without compromising them in the process.

Therefore, it becomes clear that it is the act of transcendence, of escape, that stops the individual from being simply a 'social construct', a 'confluence' of external forces, and turns them into the ideal – a socially responsible, socially aware, contributing member of a new community. A person that disavows the ever decreasing sub-labels that a society dominated and obsessed by collective identities, populated by a faceless mass of ex-individuals. A person that exercises power not simply for his or her own good, but for the creativity, liberation, and benefit of a new, ever-changing reciprocal community.


Art was not the goal, but the occasion and the method.

(Steve Fitch, musician)

This "school" must recognise that transcendence is not the final goal, and that the resulting position is of lesser interest than the means by which it is achieved. These means of transcendence would be the focus of criticism and engagement.

This school isn't curious about the results of the art alone, but in the process that leads to the result, so we might learn how it was achieved, in order to highlight and advocate it to the wider conscious.

This school believes that state of humanity can be radically improved by espousing the values of responsibility, and that this can best be achieved through the creation of cultural objects — literature, poetry, "fine" art, film, photography, journalism — and by incorporating the message that individuals have a direct effect on the wider world, no matter how small an action. That what you do matters. This goal places a burden on the creator of these cultural objects. Those whose works are read, viewed, appreciated, and criticised by an audience have a direct effect on the world at large, and should be thus used responsibly.

The quest is to be liberated from the negative.

(Otto Hofmann)

This responsibility of course extends to critics within this school. It is not for the critic to shun cultural objects that do not subscribe to their world view. It is their responsibility to engage with them and to identify the parts in which they discern to be instrumental in advocating not only the desires of the individual, but also the ways in which these desires can help facilitate the advancement of a fair, equal, and productive community whilst still respecting and encouraging the desires, and dreams of the individual themselves. If the negative - relative to the critic - can be recognised and accepted for what it is, and allow something positive to be drawn from it, then this can only benefit the collective. We neither see nor advocate the end of discourse and disagreement, but instead the acceptance of opposing points of views and the facilitation of compromise to mutual benefit.


As this school measures the actions and reactions of both creative individuals and the members of the power structures they find themselves in, it must be both active and reactive in its engagement and output.

It must be active, in so far as it must use its engagement opportunities to highlight the effects of art and culture on society at large. It must encourage social responsibility in those individuals who are producing the cultural tools with which it engages. It must be active in encouraging cross-cultural engagement: pointing out within the criticism how an individual engages with, satirises, derides, and draws attention to the power structures they come in contact with and how in doing so transcends their influence.

It must be reactive in so far as it must respond to the desires of the individual and attempt to reconcile them with the needs and wants of a productive, responsible, and fair community in which power structures do not dictate the progress of individual or communal growth. Reactive in so far as it meets and accepts the challenges presented by a rapidly changing culture by studying and learning from already existing cultural tools, from both the past and the present, making sense of them, and finding their place and relevance within a new, ideal society.


What was missing was felt irretrievable.

(Guy Debord)

Something is missing from our society. This school's assertion is that the thing missing is twofold.

First, the individual's feeling of empowerment within their community and attachment to it, and the individual's belief that what they do impacts the world around them.

Second, a community that recognises that it does not need to be defined by the structures around it, but instead by its own members and their creative output: whether that output is cultural, political, or economic. This school agrees with Guy Debord, that what is missing is felt to be irretrievable, but that the best way to retrieve what is missing is through engagement with and criticism of the cultural tools produced by the individuals that surround us: engagement and criticism that transcend, and facilitate transcendence of, the power structures we allow to define our every day existence.


Distilled Magazine The Global Crisis in Confidence

The Neverending Sack of Rome

Davide Testuginne

Italy has been attracting attention from the whole world since last summer, when the credit spread (i.e. the difference between the interest on the Italian debt and that of the Germany) rose to more than 400: the threshold beyond which the economy of a country is considered seriously compromised.

This situation has led to the formation of a new government, led by Professor Mario Monti, whose task is to save the Italian – and the European – economy. What most people may not know is how Monti’s government was formed, and this is central to understanding the Italian situation.

The Italian constitution states that citizens vote just to compose the two legislative chambers (the Parliament and the Senate). The winning party then has the right to suggest a Prime Minister (PM) to the President, who must give his approval to the nominee.

Upon approval, the new PM (currently Prof. Mario Monti) starts choosing the other ministers which then comprise a government given, once again, the approval of the President (who is currently Giorgio Napolitano) and of both the Parliament and the Senate (who vote on their “trust” or "confidence" in the newly-formed government).

Should the government face a crisis, and should it be clear that it does not hold a majority in both chambers anymore, then the PM may resign by sending a letter to the President. At this point, the President has two options: he may choose to call for elections, or to try and form a new government (which will still require a vote of confidence by both chambers to start working).

While the latter option has rarely been exercised under the 65-year old Republic, even if government crises are normal — no government has ever remained until the end of its office — it gives the President the margin to call for a temporary “technocratic government”, i.e. a government in which none of the ministers are politicians. Prof Mario Monti’s government is the second technocratic government ever formed, the first being Lamberto Dini’s in 1995, for a year. However, it should be noted that Dini himself was a politician, while Monti was not. To try and make things more “normal”, Prof Monti was appointed Lifetime Senator by the President a couple of days before being asked to form a government.

The idea of a technocratic government may trace as far back as the ancient Rome, to when the Romans would “suspend” democracy in favour of a temporary dictator every time circumstances required fast actions — the term, dictator, acquired a negative connotation much later, the 20th century.

The interesting question is: should we consider Monti a dictator, in the Roman way?

After all, he was not elected by the people, and his presence was somehow an imposition of foreign countries. The New York Times reported a phone call last fall between Merkel and Napolitano, in which the German Chancellor tentatively suggested the removal of Berlusconi for the sake of Europe. While the details of the phone call remain sketchy, it would be the very first reported case of a European country imposing a government on another European country in 60 years.

However, on the other hand we have seen that Prof. Monti was put in charge by completely constitutional means, and it wasn’t even the first time that such an exception happened. In addition to that, we should consider the fact that none of these ministers was elected, forgetting that neither of the previous ministers were, as the current Italian voting system doesn’t allow voters to express the name of a candidate. We Italians can just vote for a party, and then the party will choose its men — though Monti will probably change this. The ministers of the previous government were appointed by their party, they were not chosen neither as ministers, nor as MPs. The ministers of the current government have received the same approval from the chambers.

There is another aspect of this government that is worth greater reflection. As I mentioned, the Parliament could not change without enforcing elections and therefore all observers who think that Berlusconi’s power has been diminished are completely wrong.

The current government is sustained by the highest majority ever seen in Italy: when the Parliament voted to approve it, it received around 90% consensus. All parties voted for him, except the Northern League. However, the men that voted for him in that episode are the same that supported Berlusconi and, even worse, are the same men appointed by him because, as we mentioned, Italians may not choose directly the people they want as MPs.

What this means is clear: the pressure that Berlusconi may put on this government is massive, as he still has the power to make it collapse at anytime. This was made clear in a few notable instances.

The first instance involves television. Berlusconi’s main strategy has always been to control information, and Mediaset, his company, is the owner of the three major TV networks in Italy. In addition to that, he has used his political influence to control the State channels, RAI. This resulted in a major problem concerning the neutrality of information, but is currently also raising economical concerns. This is due to the fact that some frequencies were freed and could therefore be put up for auction (worth at least 1 bn€, experts say). Yet, instead of creating an auction for the highest bidder, the previous government has created a so-called “Keynesian beauty contest” in which the entry requirements are so high that only RAI and Mediaset can satisfy them. Hence these Berlusconi-owned and influence bodies were going to get frequencies almost for free.

However, the current government blocked everything and stated the frequencies will be sold to the highest bidder. This did not last: the government had to fall back on its decision and could only “freeze” judgement for 90 days (starting from the 20th of January) due to pressure received from Berlusconi’s MPs.

The second instance involves justice. One of the major priorities of the previous government has been to limit the power of the magistrates, because they were considered too powerful in respect to democracy. Berlusconi’s followers claim that one must be considered innocent until the very end of the judicial process, which goes through three degrees of trials, and consequently may take years to pursue. Until then, even if there is strong evidence that an MP is corrupt, the MP does not need to resign, because that would, according to Berlusconi's supporters, “betray” democracy (since he or she was elected by popular will).

For this reason, Berlusconi's MPs had proposed several laws in order to reduce the power (and sometimes the autonomy) of magistrates. For example, they had proposed to set the prescription limit to 4 years, which is less than the average length of Italian trials. It should also be noted that the Italian case is already peculiar in this regard since lawsuits and trials must be ended, rather than started, within such a time limit (NB: this applies only to criminal proceedings). This makes it effectively possible to avoid a guilty sentence by delaying the trial long enough for the time limit to expire.

Another idea was to hold magistrates personally accountable for their decisions, and viable to be sued in case they make a mistake. This idea received strong opposition from magistrates, since it would make their job impossible; in every trial, there is always somebody who will be unhappy with the decision, and if he could sue the judges, the judges would be intimidated and their judgments biased.

This idea has been recently resurrected, voted on and approved by the Italian Parliament, with the government's opposition. This is the greatest proof that Berlusconi’s power remains strong despite his removal from the premiership, and that the government, supported by an apparent consensus of 90% of the Parliament, is merely a brittle façade for a Parliamenta that has yet to change.

The reality is different: the same group of people (and of interests) that has put Italy and the whole of Europe on the edge of cataclysm is still there, and supports Monti just to have someone do what is needed, and be blamed for imposing sacrifices.

In a year’s time, they will be back. And they will find a richer country, ready to be spoiled again.