Prague Spring

Imagining Honesty and Courage

The car of a corpulent cadre.... Copyright ilagardien©engagé Please do not use without crediting source

The car of a corpulent cadre…. Copyright ilagardien©engagé Please do not use without crediting source

By Ismail Lagardien

11 February 2015. We live in a time of dimmed lights and diminished expectations. The political order has sapped the country of its energy, drained the people’s will to hope, and emboldened only the few, to whom it has become more and more difficult to explain the perils of the moral calamity that we face. Future generations might look back at our times, and recognise our avarice and greed, our crass displays of wealth, and our lack of humility.

Twenty five years ago, I read a speech that was as bold as it was honest. In his 1990 New Year’s message to the Czech people, Vaclav Havel started his speech with a daring declaration:

‘My fellow citizens. For forty years you heard from my predecessors on this day different variations on the same theme: how our country was flourishing, how many million tons of steel we produced, how happy we all were, how we trusted our government, and what bright perspectives were unfolding in front of us. I assume you did not propose me for this office so that I, too, would lie to you.

Our country is not flourishing. The enormous creative and spiritual potential of our nations is not being used sensibly. Entire branches of industry are producing goods that are of no interest to anyone, while we are lacking the things we need. A state which calls itself a workers’ state humiliates and exploits workers. Our obsolete economy is wasting the little energy we have available.

A country that once could be proud of the educational level of its citizens spends so little on education that it ranks today as seventy-second in the world. We have polluted the soil, rivers and forests bequeathed to us by our ancestors, and we have today the most contaminated environment in Europe. Adults in our country die earlier than in most other European countries.’

Havel’s legacy as a politician is mixed, but the honesty and courage of these opening passages of his 1990 speech to the people of the Czech Republic was admirable. If only we can expect such honesty from all political leaders.

*The ‘Featured Image’ in this post is a photograph taken during the Prague Spring of 1968.


Global Systemic Change And The End Of Capitalism: A Speculative Essay In Five Easy Pieces


1 Introduction

Pretoria, 10 November 2014. The crisis in the global political economy that started in the United States and spread to the world in about 2008 has drawn a lot of attention to the workings of capitalism. The crisis has generally dampened the appeal of ‘Western style democracy’ and shifted greater interest towards what is almost pejoratively dismissed as China’s ‘authoritarian model for growth’. For the most part, there (nonetheless) remains the quite unflinching belief that the current crisis will pass, and that there will be a return to equilibrium. In this respect, policy-makers and mainstream economists (and most rationalist public intellectuals, in general), may insist that things be left more or less as they are, but with some belt-tightening through strict austerity measures.

A more critical view, shared by many orthodox as well as heterodox economists and by some radical political economists, may accept that the current crisis is an affirmation, as it were, that capitalism is inherently unstable. Beyond this acknowledgement there is a parting of ways into two basic beliefs. One is that crises tend to shake inefficiencies out of the system, and they are, therefore, a ‘good thing’. True believers, infused with some liberal idealism, may argue that recurrent crises tend to affect the poor disproportionately. They may argue that those who can afford it have the social safety networks to help them recover from crises, or buffers to avoid the worst impact of contagion. Part of this argument is that states ought to create buffers to absorb the impact of crises, and establish social safety nets for the poor. They may insist that capitalism is a necessary and indispensable means of organising society, and acknowledge, nonetheless, that in the long run capitalism’s passage is marked by ‘boom, bust repeat’. At the extremes, they may suggest that protesters or capitalism’s critics simply shut up, because thousands of years ago we lived in caves. The argument is rolled out that many centuries there were no cars, no phones no television and, well, no internet, and of these were produced by capitalism. More specifically, they are the outcome of the research, innovation, competition, and investment that capitalist enterprise inspire. End of story!

The other view is that capitalism is ruinous. It may have produced unimaginable wealth for some, but it has left millions of people in poverty, created a world of vast inequalities, and as a social organising process it has created even greater iniquities and injustices, and placed the earth on a path to destruction. Among its fiercest critics there is a belief that capitalism has finally imploded, and that rescuing the system was futile. This view sometimes comes with suggestions – some of which seem rather under-developed and incomplete, and are shaped, very often by some type of liberal or socialist utopianism – which appear to be more opposed to capitalism, than producing a detailed alternative for a better world. There is no harm in that….

In setting out these views, I have, admittedly, tried to capture a wide swath of thought between two bookends. The issue is much more complicated and nuanced. In the wake of the crisis, these two positions do, indeed, seem to be the book-ends of the debate about capitalism. What I have tried to do is clear a path for the argument that unfolds over Parts II, III, IV and V; thatcapitalism may be in its final stages, that capitalists, themselves, are showing signs of insecurity about the future of capitalism, and that capital – the range of resources used to expand and accumulate wealth and property – may be moving underground, and into the shadows of an uncertain world. I cast this argument in global systemic terms, which refers to transnational forces unconstrained by national or territorial moorings, and the possibility of systemic change and transformation. Capitalism is conceived as a totality in which national or sub-national entities that seem discrete are connected in a global whole, with an attendant transnational class system.

  1. The Possibility of Global Change

The current crisis, which we can agree is systemic, is only the latest in a series of recurrent crises across the global political economy over, at least, the last three to four decades. Among many other, these systemic crises were caused by, or followed losses of confidence in banking systems, negative effects on ‘real economy’ disruptions in payments system, credit flows, and in asset values. Since the mid-eighties the most prominent among these crises have been the Savings and Loan crisis, systemic crises that started or reached a decisive point in ArgentinaEast Asia, Ecuador, Mexico, Russia, Turkey, Uruguay, the United States of America, the United Kingdom, and the European Union. If we go back to the 1970s, there have been systemic (banking or ‘economic) crises or ‘episodes’ across the entire banking system that have caused zero or negative net worth, across at least 70 countries.

The official view, emanating from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, is that the origins of systemic crises stem from build-up of financial weaknesses over time; weak credit underwriting, and weak supervision. They are quite often triggered by ‘non-systemic’ events or shocks. First distress signals are typically problems with creditor runs. All of these point to underlying problems in the global political economy, and once they get underway there is a crisis of confidence that feeds on itself. It is this crisis of confidence which, I want to suggest may be leading us towards large scale global systemic change, and ultimately the end of capitalism.

In this respect, we may have reached a ‘turning point’ in world history, similar to what we experienced after the Second World War, and again when US president Richard Nixon unilaterally abolished the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates that was established in the late 1940s.

In the current context, the idea of change has been given significant impetus by the rise of China, and the challenge it presents to United States hegemony. There may be little to fear about the shift from West to East; there seems to be a lot of racist hysteria around Chinese ascendancy in global affairs. Very many commentators conveniently ignore the wars, invasions, assassinations and manipulation of world affairs that were so central to US foreign policy in the post-war period. There is also a large amount of cognitive dissonance about the European theatres of bloodshed, and the way that war has shaped so much of that continent’s history. In truth, most of us have become way too comfortable with the social and historical dominance and control of the European world (including North America) and assimilated all the social and cultural habits that the media (in the broadest terms, not just the news media) present to us, daily. This makes it difficult to conceive of change; of a world in which English is no longer the dominant language (although the prospect of a decline in the use of English seems dim) or where dark- skinned ‘others’ and (especially) women gain prominence in world affairs. I have no such fears. We have to accept that global change is possible, and that the way we organise society may be different many years from now.

  1. Global Change and the Challenge to US Hegemony

Global systemic change is a slow process and has, sometimes, been accompanied by large-scale conflict. Arguably the best example of such systemic change was the shift of global power from Whitehall to Washington, sometime between 1918 and the late 1940s. An even more powerful argument can be made that the Europeans were engaged in almost perpetual war from the Anglo-Boer War at end of the 19th century, to the end of the Second World War in 1945. The English writer, John Hobson, following a stint as a journalist in South Africa at the time of the Anglo Boer war, concluded that it was a ‘conflict orchestrated by and fought for the preservation of finance capitalism’. Vladimir Lenin would base his theory of imperialism on Hobson’s ideas, and explained imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism. I suspect that capitalism, and the world, has moved on quite considerably since Lenin’s Imperialism.

Global systemic change does not always follow the patterns predicted by observers, nor does it happen as a result of large-scale warfare – as some of the more conservative theorists would have us believe. One standard text-book explanation (Robert Gilpin) can be summed up as follows: Change in the international system is described by a series of events where an established hegemon has its power undermined by differential growth rates among states. Consequently, the hegemon’s ability to fund its dominance falls relative to the costs involved. At the same time, a rapidly rising state will see the costs of a change in the international system fall relative to the benefits. The resultant disequilibrium can only be resolved through conflict between the hegemon and the challenger, a hegemonic war.

It’s important to note that hegemony is not inherent in international organisation, as process, it is often based on choice. Anyway, the validity or theories tend to rise and fall with power. Warfare, at the cusp or as catalyst for change, cannot be ruled out, though – at least not if we leave room for irrationalities, uncertainties, cowboy swagger and the attitude that ‘if we can’t have it ain’t nobody gonna’. These attitudes and approaches have characterised the foreign policy of some countries…. In particular, we cannot rule out conflict, if, for instance, the US remains loyal to the fear-mongering and self-righteousness of scholars like John Mearsheimer, who has been ‘predicting’ the inevitability of conflict between his country and China for several years. The problem is that the policy-making establishment could follow his ‘instruction’ – especially since so many of the apparatchiks in Washington pass through the academy that Mearsheimer (and his side kick, Stephen Walt), dominate.

Mearsheimer is part of the advisory team of the National Interest, a right-wing international affairs journal headed by Henry Kissinger. That Mearsheimer’s theories may influence the direction the US military machine takes, is not a terribly outlandish statement. One darling of the International Relations academy in the US, George Kennan, served as a key policy-maker in Washington. In 1948, when he served as Director of Policy Planning at the US Department of State for Foreign Affairs, Kennan told fellow government officials:

We have 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population… Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will allow us to maintain this position of disparity… We should cease to talk about the raising of standards, human rights and democracy… The less we are … hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.

One way to prove one’s theories correct is to get access to policy-making. In his study of the Cold War, The United States and Right-Wing Dictatorships, 1965-1989, David Schmitz, explained, that Kennan provided the ideological coherence for US Cold War policies. With varying success, many a great thinkers across history conspired to, or actually influenced the leaders of their people or their countries. The great Indian thinker, Kautilya, played a definitive role the defeat of the powerful Nanda Empire, and advised Chandragupta on the establishment of the Mauryan Empire (321 – 185 BCE) on the Indian sub-continent. Niccolo Machiavelli was a philosopher and statesman who served the Florentine Republic.  One can never predict when, or whether a hegemonic force may get the hump because of its inability to accept change, or challenges to its dominance and control…. The Project for a new American century’ launched after the end of the Cold War, was precisely to re-establish US power and influence. The neo-conservatives who launched the PNAC had organic links to the academy and the Republican Party in the USA. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 was, arguably, part of that strategy to re-assert US dominance in the global political economy.

Nonetheless, there can be little doubt that following the epoch-making developments of the late 1980s, when the Soviet challenge to western global dominance came apart quite dramatically, we are in an interregnum of sorts. This interregnum may explain the discomfort of the US, and its efforts to (re) establish’ dominance in world affairs. As it goes, the US, as the epicentre of capitalist enterprise in the late 20th century, has been ceding a lot of what made that country powerful.

In September 2012, The Economist, bemoaned the fact that ‘the world’s most important growth machine since the second world war’ had declined, and that capitalist enterprise in that country was shrinking. It is worth citing the relevant passages in full:

In the 1950s and 1960s its GDP grew by 3% a year despite the economy’s maturity. In the 1970s it endured stagflation but the Reagan revolution revived the entrepreneurial spirit and the growth rate returned to 3% in the 1990s. The machine was good for the world as well as America – it helped spread the gospel of capitalism and transform the American dream into a global dream.‘Today the growth machine is in trouble. It all but exploded in the financial crisis of 2007-08. But even before then it had been juddering. Examine the machine’s three most powerful pistons—capital markets, innovation and the knowledge economy—and you discover that they had been malfunctioning for a decade.‘Venture capitalists have slashed their spending, dumping more adventurous companies in the process, not least because around 90% of them failed to produce a positive return. The number of initial public offerings is down from an average of 547 a year in the 1990s to 192 since then. This has dramatically cut the supply of new, high-growth companies. Given that companies less than five years old may have provided almost all the 40m net jobs the American economy added between 1980 and the financial crisis, that is dismal news for the unemployed.‘… America has long boasted the world’s most business-friendly universities. One-fifth of American start-ups are linked to universities, and great institutions like Stanford and MIT spawn businesses by the thousand. But the university-business boom seems to be fading. Federal spending on health-related research increased from $20 billion in 1993 to $30 billion in 2008, for example, but the number of new drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration fell from a peak of 50 in 1996 to just 15 in 2008. University technology offices, which legally have first dibs at commercialising the faculty’s ideas, have evolved into clumsy bureaucracies.’ (Read full article, here. Subscription or payment is probably required.)

With US capitalism in retreat, and the architecture of global capitalism coming apart at its nodes, it becomes increasingly difficult to see a return to periods like the Golden Age of Capitalism, that drove massive expansion in six major members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development: France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the United States. This so-called Golden Age of capitalism (not everyone agrees that it was a great age) brought unprecedented prosperity to the world – notwithstanding vast inequalities and injustices.

The data shows that during the Golden Age, between 1950 and 1975 per capita income in developing countries increased on average by 3% a year, increasing from 2% in the 1950s to 3.4% in the 1960s. This rate of growth was historically unprecedented for these countries, and in excess of that achieved by the developed countries during their period of industrialisation In developed countries GDP and per capita GDP grew almost twice as fast as in any previous period since 1820. Labour productivity grew twice as fast as ever before, and that there was a massive acceleration in the rate of growth of the capital stock. The increase in capital stock represented an investment boom that was historically unprecedented over time and in terms of force.

This was outpaced by the growth in the volume of trade, which was eight times faster than in the preceding period (1913 – 195), and twice as great during the century from 1820 Trade between the industrialised economies of the West was the most dynamic element in this , with trade and output growth especially marked in manufactures. Globally, output of manufactures more than quadrupled between the early 1950s and the early 1970s, and world trade in manufactures grew eightfold. (Source: Follow this link)

From the 1970s onward, and more rapidly since 1980 global capitalism took repeated battering, to the extent that it became generally accepted that there was no way back to any golden age. The current crisis has done even more to shake capitalism. We’re fairly clear where we have been, but after more 25 years there is no clear sign of where we are heading. There is, however, slightest of indication that capitalism, as the most dominant form of social organisation, globally, may well be in its final stages. (No laughing at the back). This is the main contention of this little essay.

  1. Global Change and the End of Capitalism

To many people, the collapse of the Soviet Union, around 25 years ago, provided incontrovertible proof that communism had failed, and that capitalism had triumphed. The collapse of Soviet communism, once and for all, ‘proved’ that Karl Marx’s teleology, that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction, and that communism would, ultimately, become the natural successor, was wrong. Across a traditional spectrum of believers, from left to write, there was a shuffling of feet and many squeaky bums. Almost everyone with even the mildest interest in the tension between capitalism and communism, reconsidered their positions, if only to gloat. In fact, after the apparent triumph of capitalism, arch-capitalists had only to say: we told you so.

The social world is, however, not that easy to explain, understand or predict. Nevermind the bollocks emanating from market fundamentalists, capitalism as the basis for organising society might, yet, fail. Remember, Marx did not provide any fixed date for capitalism’s collapse and, as history has shown, mass-scale change does not happen instantly. What can be said with some certainty is that change is always possible, and that capitalism, in the form that it did when Soviet communism collapsed, may not last forever. It is clear that capitalist orthodoxy in the most advanced capitalist society, the USA, has changed considerably since the mid-1970s, when there was a pronounced shift towards monetarism, that actually fell into place under the Reagan administration, it was consolidated during the Clinton presidency, and by 2008, the deregulation that was so central to the broad monetarist ideology came under serious attack.

In October 2008, Alan Greenspan, chairman of the US Federal Reserve was questioned in that country’s legislative Committee on Oversight and Government Reform about his role in the economic crisis that resulted in bank closures and defaults, all of which contributed to tipping the US into recession:

‘You had the authority to prevent irresponsible lending practices that led to the subprime mortgage crisis. You were advised to do so by many others,” said Representative Henry A. Waxman of California, who chaired the committee. ‘Do you feel that your ideology pushed you to make decisions that you wish you had not made?’ Mr. Greenspan conceded: ‘Yes, I’ve found a flaw. I don’t know how significant or permanent it is. But I’ve been very distressed by that fact.’

A detailed description of this lineage of capitalism, especially over the post-war period, would be helpful, but in a later conversation. A most elementary timeline would show a transition from merchant capitalism to industrial capitalism, to the financial capitalism that dominates early in the 21st century. What is open for discussion, here, is the likelihood that global capitalism, as it has been understood and practiced since the end of the Cold War, may end in stages over the coming period; perhaps sooner than later.

What could follow, after the end of capitalism, may be a shift to the left, towards a more equitable more socialist system, where the benevolent state plays a larger role in political economy. Given the deep vested interest in maintaining the status quo this is hardly conceivable. Alternatively, any ‘collapse’ may result in a shift to the right, where powerful vested interests conspire to save or preserve in some form the system that has rewarded them. It is not inconceivable that capitalist would fight one another to rescue the system. The latter seems more likely – although predictions are the preserve of prelates, prophets, neo-classical economists and boardwalk fortune tellers. Should this occur, capitalism, perhaps a cruder version, finally unfettered from state regulations, may slip ‘underground’. Under such conditions, the state remains active, and governments may serve, more directly and unabashedly, to protect and serve corporations and banks. Banks, or at least the people involved in the shifting of stockpiles of money, may go to the mattresses to protect their own wealth or the wealth of their clients.

  1. Future Uncertain: Going Underground and Into the Shadows

It is hard to think in futuristic terms, and not sound, well, conspiratorial, dramatic or having smoked too much majat. This has never stopped mainstream economists from predicting all kinds of shit, though. We can find some solace – confidence is a better word – in the fact that speculations of space flight, landing someone on the surface of the moon, heart transplants or hip replacements were, at one time or another, the stuff of imagination – or majat dreams. (We may, yet, find out, someday, whether androids dream of electric sheep) The social world is, however, infinitely more difficult to ‘predict’. This part of the essay is submitted, therefore, as purely speculative. I will make two basic points, that cornerstone aspects of late capitalist practices could move ‘underground’ (or stay above ground while non-capitalist or contra-capitalist enterprises move into the shadows) and that there is evidence to suggest that capitalists, especially large corporations, may have lost confidence of a capitalist future. So….

Axiomatically stated, most capitalists would prefer it if they were allowed to operate in an environment that has little to no regulations. At the base of this preference is a solid belief in the ‘free market’ – although there is no place or time where ‘markets’ have been completely free. It is an ‘impossible utopia’. Karl Polanyi, the political economist I have come appreciate more and more over the past three decades, referred to free markets as a ‘stark utopia’. This notwithstanding, free marketers and market fundamentalists would do all in their power to avoid what they consider to be unnecessary regulations, taxation and state oversight. We speak, therefore, of a ‘black economy’ (Sometimes also referred to as a parallel economyshadow economy, or underground economy) which the Business Dictionary describes in the following manner:

Usually untraceable, and hence untaxable, business dealings that are not reflected in a country’s gross domestic product (GDP) computations. An integral part of most third-world and many first-world economies, it is a cash based system in which records are kept in secret account books (called number two accounts). Though it employs illegal (and even criminal) methods it is a survival practice in repressive tax regimens or where legitimate expression of entrepreneurial activity is made unnecessarily difficult by a maze of regulations. Black economy and black money go hand in hand. 

For now, it seems, there is little ‘illegal’ about the function of shadow or black economies. The investor’s encyclopaedia makes a clearer statement on this:

For instance, a construction worker who is paid under the table will neither have taxes withheld, nor will the employer pay taxes on his earnings. The construction work is legal; it is the nonpayment of taxes that classifies the event as part of the black economy. The illegal-weapons trade is an example of black-economy activity that is illegal.  Black markets are those goods and services that form the black (or underground) economy. Typically, black markets arise when a government restricts economic activity for particular goods and services, either by making the transaction illegal or by taxing the item so much that it becomes cost-prohibitive. A black market may arise to make illegal goods and services available or to make expensive items available for less money (such as pirated software).

The most aggressive legal strain of this tax avoidance may well be the way(s) in which banking, or institutional money lending has slipped into the shadows of the formal economy. Enter Shadow Banking, formally described as credit intermediation involving entities and activities (fully or partially) outside the regular banking system. In this sense, shadow banking refers to unregulated activities by regulated institutions. It involves the legitimate movement of money within countries or around the globe, and avoiding regulation by the state. Intermediaries facilitate the creation of credit, like hedge funds, unlisted derivatives and other vehicles, instruments or activities (like credit default swops) across the global financial system, and its members are not subject to regulatory oversight. This system avoids regulation by not accepting traditional bank deposits.

There has been a steady increase in shadow banking since the onset of the current global crisis risks. (See chart, courtesy of the Financial Stability Board) Reform of shadow banking has been a core part of the Group of 20’s agenda to overhaul the global financial system since the Pittsburgh Summit of 2009.

In Pittsburgh, G20 leaders established the Financial Stability Board, (FSB) as a means to deliver a transparent, resilient, sustainable source of market-based financing for real economies. More specific objectives were: to establish common policy standards and arrangements for co-operation, to help to avoid fragmentation of the global financial system, and to build a mature framework for monitoring and addressing financial stability risks arising from shadow banking.

What this regulation appears to do, is bring shadow banking from the underground, as it were. According Mike Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, the objective of oversight and regulation of shadow banking is to strengthened the practice so that authorities can be alerted to the excessive growth of leverage and liquidity risks. System-wide oversight is being established and a global monitoring exercise is under way, in order ‘to keep pace with the constant innovation and arbitrage that has been a hallmark of shadow banking’.

‘The goal is to replace a shadow banking system prone to excess and collapse with one that contributes to strong, sustainable balanced growth of the world economy. While much has already been achieved, because the G20 has been alert to these risks since the crisis, the job is not yet complete. As the G20 completes work on the core of the financial system, reforms to shadow banking must, and will, progress. Now is the time to take shadow banking out of the shadows and to create sustainable market-based finance.’(Read the text of Carney’s speech, here

In short, then, shadow banking is accepted as a norm, but efforts must be increased to bring it out of the shadows. This, we see, is an example of capitalists who ‘fight’ one another over how best to preserve and promote the system. Shadow banking, and shadow or black economies, may be fairly clear signs of capitalism slipping ‘underground’.  There are at least two reasons for this – besides greed and accumulation. One has been discussed (to avoid taxation) and the other is a growing lack of confidence in the future

There are at least two prominent signs that capitalists may be losing confidence in the future. One is that many large corporations are (reportedly) sitting on vast reserves of cash, with Apple being the most developed example, and not investing in the future. Related to this, they are, also, not investing in the youth, arguably the workers and consumers of the future. Let us firm up some links between theory and practice. Capitalism, in theory, is self-sustaining and reproductive system. Capitalists invest time and money in shoring up the system, and ensuring its own future. This means they have to, in the least, spend money on new ventures, innovation, research and development, and in the next generation of consumers and producers. Evidence shows that neither one of these is happening.

In Part III the decline of the US, as the engine for liberal growth, innovation and entrepreneurship was explained, based on a report by The Economist.

In terms of employment creation, the gains that have been made in the global political economy since 2008, has generally failed to lead to an improvement in global labour markets. This is especially critical among the youth of the world.


The statistics shows the global youth unemployment rate from 2008 to 2012 with a forecast up to 2018. The global youth unemployment rate was at 12.4 percent in 2012. Source: http://www.statista.com/statistics/269636/global-youth-unemployment-rate/ 

There is an estimated 75 million young people in the developing world who are unemployed, and hundreds of millions who are underemployed, making it one of the most pressing problems of the early 21st century. A single passage from a World Bank report, sums up the issue:

Every year, 20 million young people enter the labor force in Africa and Asia alone. In the Middle East and North Africa, 80 percent of young workers work in the informal sector. One in four young people cannot find work for more than US$1.25 a day. Yet global growth and poverty reduction over the next 15 years will be driven by today’s youth.’

To the extent, then, that capitalism has to invest in its own future, and ‘today’s youth’ will be driven by this cohort, capitalists do not seem to have much faith in the future of the system that has rewarded them so well. Between this insecurity or lack of confidence, and shifting its machinations underground, as the increase in shadow banking may suggest, capitalists may well be trying to get out of the system while they’re ahead.


All comments and suggestions are encouraged, and welcomed. Please be nice, in your comments and in life, in general.

Barefoot on a Bench at the Oriental Plaza

Reading Images: Cultural Curiosities and Continuities

By Ismail Lagardien

2 November 2014. When I visited Dubai, a couple of years ago, I photographed men seated on benches and on carts, barefoot, and with their shoes or slippers neatly placed on the ground beneath them. I took the photographs in the part of Dubai where mainly South Asians lived and worked. See the first couple of pics.

Sitting on benches, barefoot, and with shoes down below.

Barefoot on a bench in Dubai

Barefoot on a cart in Dubai

A couple of weeks ago, I visited Johannesburg’s Oriental Plaza, and captured the picture below. I have mixed feelings about the Oriental Plaza. I was born and spent some of my early childhood in a part of Johannesburg called Fietas, which was integrated much like Sophiatown and District Six, in Cape Town. When the apartheid government began to implement the Group Areas Act policies, we were ‘moved’ to Eldorado Park. We were classified ‘Malay’ and were part of South Africa’s ‘coloured’ community. Those whom the state had classified Indian, were moved to Lenasia, and Indian shopkeepers from Fietas, mainly the vibrant 14th Street community of tailors, seamstresses, haberdashers and  clothiers, in general, were moved to the Oriental Plaza. (Read this)


(The clip, above, is from the film, Material, which deals with some of the issues that beset the community)

From the Website, Newtown Heritage

The Oriental Plaza, a well-known conglomerate of shops and stalls which stands in the heart of Fordsburg today, also has its roots in the Group Areas Act. Traders of the popular ‘Petticoat Lane’ of 14th Street in Fietas, Pageview (the area abutting Fordsburg) were forcibly removed in the 1970s along with the rest of the neighbourhood’s diverse and tight-knit community. Protests against the apartheid government’s cruelty fell on deaf ears. The traders were forced to relocate their well-established businesses to the newly built and then sterile Oriental Plaza.

Some of the traders unfortunately lost their businesses, however due to the surviving traders’ sales magic, determination and perseverance, the Fietas traders managed to win back many of their 14th Street customers. The traumatic history has had a huge impact on the shopkeeper … they have had to walk a long and difficult road before they could finally buy their stores. Today, the Oriental Plaza has the unique and appealing characteristic of each store being owned by the shopkeeper, which makes them all the owners of the shopping centre. This system is unusual for shopping centres.’

Barefoot on a Bench at the Oriental Plaza

Barefoot on a Bench at the Oriental Plaza


On Typos and Other Errors

By Ismail Lagardien

19 October 2014. I get a brief sense of schadenfreude every time I see a typographical or grammatical error in a newspaper – or in any published document, for that matter. It helps me accept, more readily, how poor my own writing is, and the value of a good sub-editor.

In a brief exchange with a troll, who remarked upon my being a bad writer on the basis of a grammatical or typographical error, a couple of years ago, I made the point that every writer made mistakes, and that independent bloggers did not have the value of having our work ‘cleaned up’ before we published it online. I picked up the following (screen grab) from the website of my favourite newspaper, earlier today. (Follow this link to story).

Guardian Error

As any editor would explain, it is almost impossible to prevent errors to creep into the final edition of any newspaper. The pressures of deadlines – time and space – often make it impossible to prevent mistakes. The next screen grab is of a report by The Citizen newspaper of Johannesburg in which a Cabinet Minister, Ebrahim Patel, is incorrectly identified as Ebrahim Ebrahim. This newspaper all too frequently gets things horribly wrong.

Ebrahim Patel identified as Ebrahim Ebrahim

Ebrahim Patel identified as Ebrahim Ebrahim

Bloggers, it seems, may be forgiven. For the most part, nonetheless, readers are more tolerant of bloggers, at least when it is a personal space. Blogging tends to be more about rambling that serious writing….

Cover of the book, Coolie Woman, by Gaiutra Bahadur

… and on the Plus Side

By Ismail Lagardien

15 September 2014. I finally finished reading Gaiutra Bahadur’s, Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture, today. It is one of the best books I have read in recent and deals, in large part, with a set of issues (identity politics, memory, race and slavery) in South Africa, that is keeping me busy. More on that some other time. Right now, I am just excited that I managed to finish reading the book. First, because the day job keeps me very busy, and any time off to read is a bonus. Second, I am off work for a week and, yet, because my right hand and forearm are in bandages, it is difficult getting anything done, especially when your dominant arm is strapped up, as it were. (I am writing this with ONE finger of my left hand). Even the simple task of brushing my teeth is difficult. Taking a shower is an adventure; I wrap the arm in plastic!

Watering my Herb Garden. The bayleaf plant is coming along nicely

Watering my Herb Garden. The bayleaf plant is coming along nicely :-)

I had carpal tunnel release surgery on my right hand/wrist a few days ago. The dressing should come off by Friday 19 September, and I can start typing, and doing chores around the house in another week. I did manage to water my herb garden, though. As for Bahadur’s brilliant book, I will write a review for a weekly newspaper in South Africa, and share it here, in a few weeks’ time. I have to get past the next two weeks of post-surgery recovery, first.


The Economist Ignores Indian History of Diplomacy

By Ismail Lagardien

6 September 2014. A recent headline on the cover of The Economist caught my attention earlier this week.  India, according to The Economist, had discovered diplomacy. This claim was startling, until I realised that this was The Economist, arguably the most influential current affairs journal within the post-war liberal international order, and most consistent in its ideological bent since the magazine was established.

Anyway, the headline is, at best, terribly misleading – as headlines sometimes tend to be. The actual leader (pp 11 – 12) is more reflective, but is probably more subtle and insidious in its efforts to undermine the agency of countries that dare to make foreign policies based on beliefs and values that are not consistent with more traditional liberal internationalist (or realist) orthodoxy.

In general, it is always good to read critically (and inter-textually) to uncover the way the global media, or any media, for that matter, frame stories. With The Economist you, at least, know what you get: the ideology propped up by an unflinching belief in free markets, increasingly small government, deregulation and, as an extension, the consistent othering of anyone who dares to resist or disagree with liberal capitalist hegemony. The Economist seems to also suffer that peculiar form of historical (or selective) amnesia, that ignores liberal capitalist complicity in some of the European world’s vilest deeds.

In the mainstream, there is no place for morality, and when it does show up, it is dismissed as irrelevant or ideological, or utopian or idealistic. Morality has no place in the rationalist world. This brings us neatly back to The Economists declaration that ‘India Discovers Diplomacy’. In its leader The Economist wrote:

‘Under [Jawaharlal] Nehru, its leader after independence, a principled policy of non-alignment led to moralising that was of little relevance to the rest of Asia. Under his revisionist daughter, Indira Gandhi, India looked to the Soviet Union and closed itself off to foreign capital and trade, spurning policies that made East Asia rich … it wielded little influence abroad’. (August 30 – September 4 2014 edition, p11)

There are several ideological issues in this paragraph that need to be examined, but let’s look at the headline: ‘India Discovers Diplomacy.’ We can set aside, for now, the sub-text that states only engage in diplomacy when it is part of global power relations, and that is no room for relations driven by ‘non-power’ politics, such as morality. This is a cornerstone of mainstream post-war international relations thinking.

India has a Deep History of Diplomacy

How is it possible that anyone, with any insight into world affairs or history, can write, in 2014, that India has discovered diplomacy? One gets the sense, sometimes, that writers on The Economist have a spark of an idea, bang it out on a word processor, then hit the send button. Sharing ideological solidarities, one of the editors reads the article, smiles smugly and forwards it to a sub-editor, who gives the thumbs up, ‘cleans’ and ‘tightens up’ the language then sends it off with a ‘recommended headline’ to the production editor or someone closer to the stone…. After the magazine is printed, they all go down the pub in the City, and have a jolly good time, before going home to their chrome and glass flats in Magaret Thatcher’s Docklands, or in any of the poor doors developments in London. One gets the sense that for all their education and, well, wisdom, they would reflect, sometimes, on the things they write.

One of the greatest books of the ancient world, Arthaśāstra, was written by Kautilya, an advisor to the Indian King, Chandragupta Maurya who lived between 317 and 293 BCE. The book was described by Max Weber (in his seminal essay ‘Politics as a Vocation’) as ‘truly radical “Machiavellianism” in the popular sense of that word…. compared to it, Machiavelli’s The Prince is harmless’.

In the Arthaśāstra, Kautilya provided far-reaching ideas and commentary on war and diplomacy, on building alliances and signing treaties. While Kautilya was a worthy forerunner of Henry Kissinger, for his advocacy of quite brutal policies, his boss, Chandragupta, consolidated India, before his grandson Asoka, who was considered to be one of the finest kings in world history, ushered in what the ‘great moral transformation’.

‘As a result of the progressive secularisation of society due to the innovations contemplated by [the Arthaśāstra] and the administration of Chandragupta, the country was prepared for the reception of the great moral transformation ushered in by Asoka and his administration,’ wrote MV Krishna Rao, the Indian politician in 1957.

After witnessing the suffering that occurred during his invasion of the kingdom of Kalinga, Asoka turned toward Buddhism and nonviolence. He declared that his foreign policies, especially his conquests, would be conducted on the bass of morality or dharma, which meant right conduct, religion, duty law, social justice, and responsibility. Asoka propagated tolerance and respect for others, even those with different religions and backgrounds, and, in particular, that ‘other sects ought to be duly honoured in every case’. He stressed that social interaction and politics had to be driven by love of the family, compassion, including respect for others, kindness toward slaves and prisoners, reverence toward elders, kind treatment of animals, honesty, moderation and self-control. He instituted a system of social welfare, including medical centres for people and for animals, the construction of roads and communication networks, digging of wells and the planting of trees for shade. He had particular concern for the poor and encouraged ahimsa (nonviolence)… all of which he did for ‘the common good of the world’. In some ways, the latter approach presages the public goods (including the global public goods) approach that is so fundamental to public policies, today.

If The Economist’s writers bothered to read Kautilya’s work, they might have found deep parallels with their own crude Darwinism and ‘economic rationalism’. Indeed, the Arthaśāstra is considered to have been the best economics rationalist thinking since Adam Smith. It even professes dishonesty, if material gains can be had. ‘A person should not be too honest,’ Kautilya wrote, ‘Just as straight trees are chopped down first, honest people are taken advantage of first.’ This is, to be sure, something The Economist would approve of, given their social Darwinist market fundamentalism.

So much, then, for India’s ‘discovery of diplomacy’ in the early 21st century.

Selected References and Sources for Further Reading

‘This slightly misleading headline will change the way you share this story.’ Nymag.com and Quartz expand their science coverage By Alexis Sobel Fitt. Columbia Journalism Review http://www.cjr.org/the_observatory/this_slightly_misleading_headl.php#sthash.VBe9Buom.dpuf

‘How To Write a Headline: The primary tool to grab and hold the reader’. University of North Carolina at Pembroke. http://www2.uncp.edu/home/acurtis/Courses/ResourcesForCourses/WritingHeadlines.html.

On Framing. See The University of Twente resource: http://www.utwente.nl/cw/theorieenoverzicht/Theory%20clusters/Communication%20Processes/Framing/

Framing the News. Pew Research Centre. By the PEW RESEARCH CENTER’S JOURNALISM PROJECT STAFF. http://www.journalism.org/1998/07/13/framing-the-news/.

Krishna Rao, M V (1958) Studies in Kautilya, 2d. (1958) New Delhi: Munshi Ram Manohar Lal.

History – Indian Diplomacy




Photographing Naked Bodies: A Question of Trust, and Ethics

By Ismail Lagardien

3 September 2014. There was a breach of security in the ‘cloud’ recently, which exposed naked or semi-naked pictures of celebrities. I am not sure about the finer details. I am not sanctimonious, but I really have no interest in the naked forms of celebrities….

Three things stood out from the breach and the brouhaha that surrounds it. The first is the prominence and value that is given to celebrity, when women and men who are less famous or popular are violated somatically and in very many other ways almost daily, but it is rarely a ‘crisis’. Put another way, why does it take the ‘exposure’ of famous people’s bodies, to draw our attention to privacy? The second issue has to do with ‘the cloud’. My immediate response to ‘the cloud’ is that it is just another way for companies to make money. Whereas for many of us, our data is safe on our computers – that’s why we buy large disc space – a market has been created for cloud storage. Let’s be clear, here; there is a need for keeping personal information safe, and offsite hosting is a good idea. However, a market has been created – markets do not rise spontaneously – and is promoted through fear (of a loss of information) and a siege mentality (that someone wants to eat your babies). Soon we may be forced to buy personal computers with minimal space, and be forced, as it were, to buy cloudspace. The third issue is the general habit of making pictures of people who are naked, or semi-naked – whatever that may mean. Are we not all semi-naked? The issue I want to raise is one of trust – or ethics. Let me explain.

I don’t take as many pictures as I would like to – somehow, I reckon, Instagram does not count – but wherever I go, I almost always have a camera at hand. Well, not in South Africa; the levels of crime and violence in the country have made me cautious about going anywhere with anything marginally valuable.

Nonetheless, like most people who find expression through photography, I take pictures which, to others, may seem quite random – until they see the outcome. Photography does that. It makes you see things quite differently. See the following picture, of a rather mundane every-day-scene, a corridor in a hotel made with an iPhone 5s.

I a corridor of a hotel. Picture taken with iPhone5s

In a corridor of a hotel. Picture taken with iPhone5s

Sometimes you have to see the picture, at least the interplay between shadows and light. Over the 30 years or so that I have had a camera by my side – three years of which I actually worked professionally as a photojournalist – I have probably taken four or five pictures of people who were naked. There are also a couple of me floating around on one of my storage drives. I don’t recall any one of them being sexual, or pornographic. Most of them were about shadows and light, or about shapes.

Trust (and) Ethics

There are some rules I apply when making intimate photographs. I never photograph anyone without explicit permission; I never share the pictures, often not even with the person, and when the pictures don’t work, I simply trash them. Over this period, mainly over the last 10 years or so, I have placed only three of those shoots online. Only two are currently online, but you cannot see the faces, or even full body features of the person. See below, and here for a direct link. The fact of the matter is, when you’re making pictures, they either work or they don’t.

The most fundamental issue is to get permission, first, before making the pictures, and then again to place them online. There are some caveats, of course. It’s hard to take a picture anywhere in public without capturing people, but there are rules that govern publication of people in public. It would be almost impossible, for instance, to consult every person at a sporting event or a political rally, or even on the street, before publishing pictures of the event. Context provides perspective.

Earlier this year, I wanted to have pictures printed for my walls at home. One of the better frames I considered for printing was a portrait I had made of someone, and included a bare breast. I enquired about making the print, and the printer was clear; they would be ‘sensitive’ and honourable. (See screenshots below)

Note to Printer

Note from Printer

As it goes I did not have the print made, especially because I could not trust that the commercial printer would not share, or make the image public. Nor could I be sure that Dropbox would be secure. I don’t trust Dropbox  (especially, not now, that they have Condoleeza Rice on their board of Directors – yes, I am ideological) or any cloud space, for that matter. This, it seems, was the problem with the ‘security’ breach that saw ‘sensitive’ photographs of famous people go public. The pictures were made at a time and in a place where people felt safe. They trusted each other. It was then stored in a placed which was trusted. It was, then, also trust that was breached.

The way I see it, the issue starts with trust. You have to trust that someone will not share intimate pictures. The photographer, professional or amateur, has to behave ethically. It is certainly true that in the age of the internet (blah blah…), On the part of the photographer, there can be no reason to violate the privacy of others, not even if they are no longer a lover, or a friend. That’s just mean and spiteful, and malicious!

Professional photographers – who is not a ‘pro’ these days – have a special obligation to be ethical. The predatory voyeurism that drives news, and war photographers, in particular, should, at least be framed by human honesty. Some pictures ought to never see the day of light, least of all when they are personal and intimate moments of fellow humans. It starts with ethical behaviour.

Impaled or stirring: Julius Malema

Reading Images: Picture of Malema, Like a Frame from The Omen

Impaled or stirring: Julius Malema

Impaled or stirring: Julius Malema Picture copyright the Mail & Guardian

By Ismail Lagardien

This picture is amusing, as perhaps it is disturbing. The image suggests a spike through Julius Malema’s head – the disturbing part – or, and this is the amusing part, for its mild reference to Malema’s political style, that he is forever stirring, hence the spoon handle jutting from his head. The smirking figure to his left seems to know what’s is going on, and the character over his right shoulder, in the background smiles joyfully. They seem confident and full in control. Malema, too, looks as if he is in full control. Follow this link to the original story.

The image reminded me of a scene from The Omen, in which mysterious shadows in photographs foreshadow the death(s) of characters .It is probably best to stick to the ‘stirring’ story….



Help students challenge economics

By Ismail Lagardien

31 March 2014. University students have just started the new academic year, and for many first-year students this is in effect the start of adulthood — a time when they start making decisions for themselves and charting their own futures and, perhaps, someday, the futures of many others.  What they learn over the next four years, perhaps more, may well determine their places and roles in society for the rest of their lives. (Read Further

Update: The Guardian published the following commentary piece on 9 May 2014.

University economics teaching isn’t an education: it’s a £9,000 lobotomy

Economics took a battering after the financial crisis, but faculties are refusing to teach alternative views. It’s as if there’s only one way to run an economy

In a manifesto signed by 42 university economics associations from 19 countries, the students decry a “dramatic narrowing of the curriculum” that presents the economy “in a vacuum”. The result is that the generation next in line to run our economy, from Whitehall departments or corporate corner-offices, discuss policy without touching on “broader social impacts and moral implications of economic decisions”.

The problem is summed up by one of the manifesto’s coordinators, Faheem Rokadiya, at the University of Glasgow: “‘Whenever I sit an economics exam, I have to turn myself into a robot.’ But he and his fellow reformers aren’t seeking to skimp on algebra, or calling for a bonfire of the works of the Chicago school. They simply object to the notion that there is one true way to do economics, especially after that apparently scientific method has been found so badly wanting.(Read Further)

Additional resources:
University of Manchester Post-Crash Economics Society.

International Student Initiative for Pluralism in Economics

ISIPE Open Letter.