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Protest by consensus: Laurie Penny on Madrid's Occupy

Like most of the occupations around the world today, Madrid's Puerta del Sol is peaceful.

In Spain, the revolution doesn't start till after teatime. It's 4pm on a Saturday and I'm wandering through Puerta del Sol in Madrid, the main city square that was occupied last May by thousands of anti-austerity activists, to find just two folding tables piled with leaflets. Behind one of them, some earnest young people in their late twenties are collecting votes for a people's referendum they have organised, involving some three million people across Spain, to decide what the 15O movement behind the evening's planned protest is actually demanding.

"In May, we asked everyone for proposals and suggestions for the change they wanted to see," says Rai, an eager 29-year old software developer helping to co-ordinate this referendum. "In the end we had about 11,000 suggestions. That was too much, and we couldn't get everyone to agree, so a group of four hundred made them into just five suggestions."

The referendum is so broad that the edges are hard to see -- participants are required to vote yes, no or abstain to "less political corruption" and "a more sustainable economy", alongside more specific demands for greater representation for smaller parties within Spain's current two-party system. Most people I speak to believe this is an improvement on the terms of the upcoming General Election, whose results are seen as a foregone and depressing conclusion -- more austerity, with a little less mitigation and no real choice for voters.

Rai wears a t-shirt saying "citizen of the new world". As protests begin to be coordinated across the planet, the shape of that new world is still uncertain although behind us in Sol, four or five young activists are doggedly constructing a giant globe out of bamboo and papier mache. I ask Rai if he expects many people to be here tonight. "I don't know," he says, admitting to a loss of radical energy in Spain's movement over the summer. "A few, maybe."

Four hours later the square is crammed with over 60,000 people, a vast, stamping, shouting human mass. "I'm here because I am indignados!" One girl shouts at me in broken English. "We are angry!"

As more demonstrators press their way into the square, chanting about the failure of representative democracy and calling for, among other things, the dismissal of the local governor, there is literally no room to turn around. Some activists break into an empty building on one side of the square and begin to drop banners: "somos los 99 percent", reads one, echoing the slogan of the "occupy" protests around the globe, as news pours in about sister demonstrations in New York, Boston, Lisbon, London and almost a thousand other towns and cities around the world.

This is a global protest, and it seeks to address a global problem: the monopolisation of wealth by the elite and the failure of free-market capitalism to create a liveable future for humanity.

The alternatives for that future are unformed, but they are at last being debated in open people's forums around the world. The giant papier-mache globe has now been completed and actually looks quite impressive, glittering with red and green LEDs at points of global occupation as it hangs in the middle of the noisy twilit square.

Like most of the occupations around the world today, Puerta del Sol is a peaceful protest. As each banner drops, the crowd cheers it cacophonously; those packed into the sidestreets can't see the banners, so they don't even know why they're cheering, but they cheer anyway, a thunderous roar reverberating back through the crowd and through the heart of the Spanish capital.

"Maybe people don't listen to us now, but in the future they will have to," says Eva, 18, as the night draws in and the crowd settles down for an enormous general assembly. "They can't ignore us. We are the 99 per cent."

In every wing of this protest movement I have reported from, one common theme is the fetishisation of form and process over ideology. In Madrid, as in London and New York, all decisions, from the smallest breakout circle to general assemblies of thousands, are made using the "consensus" model of direct democracy, waving hands in various simple signals and operating with discussion facilitators rather than leaders, a system that some say originated in the Quaker movement several centuries ago.

There are different dialects of hand-signal consensus in different countries-in Spain they wave their hands higher, in New York a system called "progressive stack" is designed to ensure that minority voices are heard -- but the principle is the same.

It's a principle of democracy done at ground level, and people involved in this "consensus" process find it incredibly empowering -- a refreshing contrast to the alienating remoteness and weary predictability of parliamentary representative democracy, which most people here see as totally irrelevant to their real lives.

The sense of collective engagement overwhelms the multiplicity of different strategies and suggestions within the movement: everyone turns up with their own problems and grievances, but the process of engagement becomes just as important . "I do not come here to affirm who I am already," one visiting Spanish activist in New York said last week, "I come here to discover who I can be with other people. This is a new kind of politics."

I believe that what we are seeing here is the beginnings of a substantive change not just to the nature of modern politics, but to the way in which it is done, demanded and delivered, a change shaped by network technology just as the printing press changed politics six centuries ago.

It baffles the hell out of the press, and not even those who have been involved deeply from the start pretend to be able to see the end game, but one thing's for sure -- it would be a grave mistake to write off this unique movement before it has really begun.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?