Where next for Occupy Wall Street? Conspiracy theory and the financial crisis

There has clearly been a concerted effort by a wealthy elite to bring us to our current state of pla

Conspiracy theorists have long said that the financial crisis is not a failure of regulation, of taking the eye off the ball, but rather a Machiavellian exercise that has been implemented over many years by free market liberal capitalists, wanting to erase the state and let the market work its wonders.

I want so badly to believe that it wasn't planned, that it was simply stupidity, lack of leadership and a too-big system out of control. But two events last week have finally brought me closer to believing the conspiracy brigade. First was the shocking admission from a City trader on the BBC that "Goldman Sachs rules the world", which rapidly went viral on the internet for its sheer bold-faced honesty. Even the conspiracy theorists thought it was a yes-men stunt, and couldn't possibly be true.

But the exposure of a secret letter from the European Central Bank to Berlusconi -- in which they press for action to privatise public services and overhaul the unions in order to "restore the confidence of the markets", was the final bit of evidence that convinced me.

Of course, I wasn't naïve. I knew that free marketeers were trying to dismantle the state and take over everything -- I just didn't think that it could be so well-mastered and designed, by campaign strategists of the highest order.

As a campaigner, I know when we plot a campaign strategy, its important to take the long-view. We design the opening up of political space through mobilisation and other tactics, and we build in opportunities to take advantage of key political moments. We make sure we identify and inform allies on the inside. And hopefully, after a few years, we will have won our case. But whereas the campaigns I have worked on are about fighting for human rights and the environment, the free marketeers' campaign was to overturn a system that values public goods over private enterprise, replacing it with one that values the wealthy and sees the poor as entirely expendable. Whereas the former might be based on a three or five year horizon, theirs had a 50 + year timeline. And it's finally coming to fruition on a global scale.

You can imagine Milton Friedman and a few other men sitting around a smoke-filled room at the Chicago School of Economics, back in the late 1960s, mapping out a political future with a severe global crisis at just the right moment, so that their dream of a state-free-future would become a reality. "Let's pick a country to start out with and learn some lessons," they might have said. So they started with Chile in the 1970s, pitching themselves as economic experts, and advising then dictator Pinochet to cut public spending and let the corporate sector takeover. No matter that the result was inflation of 375 per cent and 30 per cent unemployment, while eradicating the middle classes.

"This is the pain they have to endure" Friedman and his cronies said at the time. "We'll need a few more countries to strengthen our power," they might have strategised in the review a few years later, in the same, presumably smoke-filled room.

Throughout the 1980s, they worked their way through a few more developing countries as an experiment (for these colonial outposts were easy to sacrifice), as their disciples spread into the Bretton Woods institutions and beyond. They implemented their "lessons learned" (prioritise debt repayment, strip assets, privatise public services, increase wealth for the few).

"We'll need to have more influence," they would have agreed, as they infiltrated the right and the left alike -- the US Republicans and Democrats, the Conservative and Labour parties over here -- ensuring that their economic and policy advisors went through a constant revolving door with big business. They would put forward their advocates in every aspect of political and monetary policy. Now we see "expert" groups comprised of ex-Goldman Sachs bankers in Europe informing regulations on the finance sector.

And when they thought about mobilising, they could do no better than the Tea Party and its various incarnations, not to mention the long-standing think-tanks that celebrate "free enterprise", like the Adam Smith Institute or its US-based cousin, the American Enterprise Institute.

So, decades later, many of the original campaigners now long gone, you can see their offspring enjoying a whisky, a round of golf, a ride on their yacht, toasting their success. The master plan is finally taking hold in the US and Europe, the global economic crisis almost certainly a design of their cadre's original making.

Is it all a conspiracy? Chaos theory, of course, is a counter-balance to this line of thinking, but the point is, in fact, moot. There has clearly been a fairly concerted effort by the hands of a wealthy elite to bring us to our current state of play.

The question is, do we simply accept their interim victory as a fait accompli? Or can we learn from their lessons? Like any real campaigner, I'm not prepared to accept defeat, even one of this magnitude. I'm inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement taking off in the US, but simply showing dissent isn't enough. Let's learn from the right. We now need to take a long-term, strategic view, mapping out not just what we don't like and want to change, but also who we need to influence, and precisely how.

This is not a short-term project. But the sooner we do this, the more likely we will, in our old age, still be enjoying public services, watching our children have access to education, drinking clean water under green trees and a clean sky, and looking back on a campaign well fought and well won.

Deborah Doane is the Director of the World Development Movement

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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot