The case for a reparations movement in Europe

Left Strategy, World Policy Jun 12, 2012 Add a comment

Now seems like a good time to point out that four years on and promises that if we leave those who caused the financial crisis to fix it unimpeded all will be well seem hollow. So if they haven’t cleaned up their mess, it is time they were properly blamed for it. We need a reparations movement for Europe.

You get a wholly different view of the world when you see it moderated through the eyes of people rather than through the eyes of institutions. In fact, this is increasingly becoming one of my recurring themes – when institutions look out at the world they see it as a dead landscape made up of other institutions and ‘proxies for life’. An example of a proxy for life would be employment statistics which tell us nothing at all about the experience of work by a human (does the job offer decent pay and conditions, is it socially useful, is it secure, does a person have any chance of finding it rewarding?). Another proxy for life is the corporate responsibility report, carefully rewriting all the things the institution has done anyway but this time making it sound like it had something to do with being ‘nice to the environment’. It is not a substantive account of actions related to life as it is lived but rather a historical rewrite of life as imagined.

People are quite different. Right now we have living with us an intern over from Spain for six months (she’s working on a film my partner is making). She managed to get a small grant to help a bit with living costs. But even that turned out to be too much – last week she got an email telling her that half of her grant had to be withdrawn ‘because of the additional money the government needs to give to the banks’. This is life as lived by people clashing with life as seen by institutions. The Spanish banks will never see a struggling young filmmaker losing her means of support in the middle of a project planned for months and months. They see the spurious opinions of ratings agencies.

You will be getting the sense by now that I’m having an angry day. It’s not mainly the grant – somehow we’ll work it out. It’s the news I hear every day, translated directly from the Spanish press. The Spanish government has simply told Parliament it will not answer any questions on the Euro bailout until an unspecified point in the middle distance. We read about what the financial markets think and know little about what people think. Or what about the emergency legislation which will make it illegal to whistle in protest over the top of the national anthem at sporting events in Spain? What has that to do with debt and deficit? This is how institutions see people – as problems to be controlled (unless they are obedient entities to be ignored).

Given that I have a lot of family in Greece, this is a time where I find myself face to face with the reality of the financial crisis on a day to day basis. One of my Greek extended family has been gradually working longer and longer hours until the point where he now basically sees his children for one day a week (gone before they;re up in the morning, home after they are in bed and working six days a week). And he considers himself very lucky. Such is a life run for institutions.

But what about the people that run institutions? How do we reconcile them-as-people with them-as-the-tools-of-power? This is a part of the picture where we need to start to join up various of our complaints about the injustice of the modern economy. One might reasonably imagine that there would be some conflict between the moral conscience of the leaders of institutions as members of society and their role as guardians of corporations (and governments and agencies and all the rest). Well, that is the other half of the inequality debate. It’s not just that the poor are being left behind, its that the rich are becoming isolated. They don’t go to the same schools or hospitals as us any more. They don’t shop in the same shops (if they shop for themselves at all). The most certainly don’t live in the same houses or streets. They barely even consider the police to be relevant to them (their security is managed by themselves for themselves). This is how powerful people have once again made abstractions out of other people – people they only really know theoretically. I worked with university principals, many of whom only really knew other people of the same social class. That, I increasingly came to believe, was why they  could not see why there would be any objection to charging £30k for a university degree. ‘You and me and everyone we know’ – that was the filter through which the world was seen.

Is this just a moan? Well, not just. I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the last couple of weeks and while I’ve been feeling increasingly angry it is not with no purpose. As I became increasingly frustrated with the translated Spanish news (very strangely, the current line is that all of Spain’s problems lie with the previous government, the one which left a budget surplus and a low level of public debt and not the private sector which has accrued ALL of the debt problems) I began to think about the difference between action and justice. And I think it it time that we turned our thoughts a bit to the justice part as well as the action part.

So for ten minutes I turn my mind away from wondering whether it’s ‘Swinney’s Keynesianism or Orborne neoliberalism’ or whatever is passing for economic debate and instead I started to think about long-term justice. One word kept coming back into my mind; ‘reparations’. Our intern may have no ‘right’ to her grant but since no-one is concealing the fact that the only reason she has lost it is so they can give it to the banks there must be some sense of justice. The administrators who informed her seemed to feel that – they couldn’t apologise enough and offered her the chance to apply again (from the top of the list) next year. This is people talking to people, realising that the balance sheet no longer allows justice today but that this does not mean there is no longer any place for justice. Somehow, instinctively, they know that the right thing is to ‘make it up to her’.

It is. We all require some justice. We have been told over and over that we have no option but to suck this up, all on the basis that it would fix things if we just took our medicine. And we feel powerless. OK, let’s assume the game on their terms for a second and lets assume that nothing can be done right now. (It can, but just for a second take them at face value.) Why does that mean justice must be suspended? The idea that justice is that someday the banks should pay back the bailout loans is the justice of asking a mugger to give back the purse to the battered granny, at some point in the unspecified future. That isn’t justice.

So what I’ve come to think is that we need a reparations movement, a campaign to impose future reparations on those who caused the suffering but didn’t suffer. We will take back the money that we are owed in loans, and that is the end of the administrative purpose. And then, after that, we will be given justice. A sum should be agreed at a European level (pick a number and add ‘trillion’ on the end) which somehow represents the suffering of the European people resulting from the actions of the financial and government elites. We will then identify the culprits – banks, ratings agencies, stock markets, accountancy firms, property developers, leveraged buy-out specialists, legal firms, lobbyists, economic consultants, the IMF, senior civil servants, government ministers, even some of the media cheerleaders. Then we will make an assessment of their wealth as of summer 2008, as individuals and as corporations and institutions. And through a simple indexing we will calculate the reparations they are due by working out their share of the wealth and then allocating them their share of the reparations bill.

This money need not be paid right now – still taking the IMF at face value for a bit, we will continue to allow them to pursue their strategy for fixing everything (well, no we won’t but for the sake of argument…). But then, one day, they will pay back. And that pay back will be to some kind of social institution that can then make good the repairs. Now in fact, in some ways I don’t actually care if they pay back. That’s not entirely the point. The point is that they deserve their stigmata, their scarlet letter, their mark of shame. So the rest of us can feel some sense of justice. They may not pay back, but at least they will go to their grave in disgrace if they do not. There will be no evasion (we know where they were in 2008 – they can’t hide retrospectively). And there will be no forgiveness. Until they have paid. And until then we could simply pass a law requiring those carrying the reparation liabilities to declare these liabilities at the outset of any legal or official business. “Thanks for coming to the phone. I’m calling from the Royal Bank of Scotland. Before I sell you a mortgage I need to read out the following. RBS is subject to reparation liabilities stemming from the bank’s incompetence which lead to the impoverishment of the people of Europe. We have not yet paid back our debt to society. So, that mortgage…”

Does this matter? Yes. Let me give you the quick Scottish example. I have barely any regard for Tom Hunter. If selling trainers cheap by creating minimum wage retail jobs and then using the proceeds to speculate wildly (and largely unsuccessfully) by using money borrowed from a bank which you don’t then repay is a viable model for the Scottish economy, then let Tom Hunter lecture us on economics he very clearly doesn’t understand (you can’t ‘go back to being a third world country’ – barring an apocalypse the first-world infrastructure is still there, so by no definition is it possible). Since it isn’t, and since that is all he knows, let’s ignore him. And wouldn’t that be so much more easy if we could see his stigmata. Perhaps it would be a different world if Tom Hunter had to open his rant to the Scottish Parliament with “Before I begin can I state that I am an individual subject to reparation liabilities as a result of massive loan defaults to banks which contributed to the impoverishment of the people of Europe and that I have not yet repaid my debts to society”. In that world perhaps there would be a little less respect for his ‘wisdom’ and a little more condemnation of the harm he has done.

I’m sure many others have thought of similar plans – I note that ATTAC has raised the idea of a name-and-shame commission (they don’t call it that…). But something has to be done. The people who mugged the people of Europe have not only not repaid the value of their theft, they have repaid nothing at all by way of justice. This cannot just pass. Reparations are due, and we all know who is due them.

Robin McAlpine

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