Monthly Archives: February 2021

On books and circuses

One of the current problems afflicting the book industry right now is the same problem afflicting all of Maltese society: jungle rules. The rampant disregard to the law and to good governance by many public officials is outstanding not because it happens in the first place; we all know that greed can make people act in a very destructive manner, but because it is being allowed to be perpetuated by the same government which supposedly is cleaning out the house.

Allow me to be brief and spare you with the details which may only be relevant to our industry. The Malta Book Festival, previously the Malta Book Fair, has been held at the Mediterranean Conference Centre for more than thirty years. Since 2013 we re-branded the event and made it bigger hitting consistent record sales year after year. As the Festival grew over the years we started taking more space at the MCC to add more capacity until we practically started booking most of the MCC, including Republic Hall in 2019. Then we were suddenly told that we were not able to book Republic Hall anymore because the Malta Tourism Authority had front-run our booking for an event they are sponsoring which will host the Cirque de Soleil circus.

I was flabbergasted. It was just right after the end of the Festival in 2019 that I received the news. Eventually, the pandemic arrived and Cirque de Soleil went bankrupt. MCC contacted us and told us that Republic Hall was available once again. In 2021, we then received the news the Cirque de Soleil show was to go ahead anyway and that we were not able to make use of Republic Hall any longer. I protested against this with the Minister of Tourism Clayton Bartolo and the Prime Minister himself and all I got from the government was the request to help myself by changing the dates and location of the Malta Book Festival. So, practically, the book industry is expected to take a bigger hit in sales by further changing the arrangements of its event for the sake of a foreign circus subsidised by our own government.

The Minister of Tourism has just recently released a document outlying the importance of promoting indigenous culture as part of MTA’s new strategy. Despite the fanfare to launch this document, the Minister and MTA are doing exactly the opposite of what this document says – they are subsidising a foreign circus at the expense of a local culture industry. And the expense is on our side is at least €100,000 less in book sales and a long-term negative impact on our brand. Great way to help small businesses. So, it’s not just about the money. And we don’t accept bribes either just to make it clear.

But there is also a very obvious reason why we are being front-run like this without any consideration to our industry and to the families who depend on it. The Cirque de Soleil show at Republic Hall is a corrupt contract handed over to 365 Entertainment Group by MTA official, and ex-Konrad Mizzi canvassar, Lionel Gerada. Gerada, who is a convicted fraudster, was given authority by the disgraced Konrad Mizzi to allocate MTA events funds and 365 Entertainment is amongst MTA’s favourite recipients. 365 Entertainment Group has been allocated a substantial, but yet undisclosed amount of funds to organise the Cirque de Soleil circus, but the government-suibsidised payment to Cirque de Soleil is undoubtedly in clear breach of EU-State Aid rules especially given the context. Gerada has also committed perjury when testifying with the Public Accounts Committee saying he has no connections to 365 Entertainment Group when he was caught representing them and dining with its owners in the Netherlands. And guess what? 365 Entertainment is one of those companies which last year promoted Malta as a safe-party destination to British tourists and directly contributed to the re-emergence of the virus pandemic in the country.

Why do I say it is a corrupt contract? Because a contract effected with the provision of funds by a convicted fraudster and public official who is associated with the same company he is giving the funds to, is simply nothing else but a corrupt contract. These are jungle rules. A corrupt contract will subsidise a show by a foreign and bankrupt company at the expense of a local cultural industry of national importance. You would expect people to resign over this scandal in ordinary European States, but this is not an ordinary European State. And, despite all of this, the government expects us to remain silent, complacent, and at best help ourselves by taking on bigger hits in sales by changing our arrangements. I’m not sorry. The older I get the less intolerant I become of corrupt bullies and infantile behaviour by supposedly-grown men. In our jungle rules, corrupt idiots are being allowed to bully their way around in the country, wreaking havoc on society and our businesses indiscriminately. It is my job and my duty to defend the interests of the local book industry and I will keep doing so as long as the law allows me to.

Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it. A reply to Grace Blakeley.

One of the problems with the left of today is that it is stuck with the ideas of its peers which apart from being outdated have been misconstrued by many years of Leninist and Trotsykist influence in European socialist literature. I have great admiration for Marxists like Ernest Mandel who in the Second-World War fought with the Resistance, but the Marxist ideas of our peers have a particular history to them which is completely different from the historical conditions which have caused today’s state of affairs. Mandel was born in a world run by empires and where capitalism was ruthlessly oppressive, where racism was the official normal, and wars took place which massacred millions of people. Post Second-World War, the world changed to a great extent. Western Europe adopted the social-contract and the traditional empires were dismantled, however great injustices like the Vietnam War still echoed the oppressive vicissitudes of capitalist-imperialism of the old world and international communist movement lived to fight these injustices.

Back then socialism was an incredibly innovative political-ideology which was adhered to by political-movements that directly addressed the needs and aspirations of ordinary people. It was also fueled by countless of political, economic and philosophical debates. For example, Anuerin Bevan’s programme for the National Health Service to provide free health-care for all was a very radical concept back then which even some of his fellow members of the Labour Party were opposed to. Today, free-health care is embedded in the European psyche as a given-right, but the historical thought process which brought about this idea in our psyche was fraught with many barriers. Just look at the debate in the US on the student debt-jubilee proposal. Some of those who oppose it claim that it is unfair on them after having paid off their debts themselves. The idea that someone else is going to get something for free while I had to pay for it may be, for some, unfair, but the simple logical answer to this should be that if I have suffered injustice, it doesn’t mean that I am going to accept that it is repeated on others. Indeed, from my European perspective, forcing young people into debt for a basic university education is an injustice which restricts social mobility.

This is why it was very refreshing to see AOC coming in defense of the Reddit users in the GameStop saga – a glimmer of light amongst the recycling of idealist left-wing critique which doesn’t make any sense. Rashida Tlaib’s proposed bill on stable-coins signals to me that the left still doesn’t understand the world we live in and refuses to think outside its dogmatic box. It is after all true that the leftt keeps failing to relate to ordinary people and keeps being sidelined to the periphery of politics. Grace Blakeley‘s text on the GameStop saga produces the same kind of frustration. Hers is a very dogmatic and idealistic critique which once again re-affirms the left’s refusal to re-read Marx in the light of the events which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even Slavoj Zizek is not meticulously engaged with Marx and history as he is more concerned with Hegel and Lacan, but at least he has been one of the only few contemporary left-wing intellectuals who brought some tangible and rational discourse forward that broke away from left-wing idealism – case in point was when Zizek actually extolled the virtues of voting and inspired many young English left-wingers to eventually join the Labour Party and militate for Corbyn.

Post-GameStop saga, Blakeley argues that the fact that people can buy a company’s shares in an economy where most shares are owned by a very few number of people may create the illusion that somehow, ordinary people can successfully become owners of capital and achieve economic emancipation by becoming capitalist owners. Blakeley says, somewhat bizarrely, that neo-liberalism entices workers to believe that they can only exercise power as capitalist owners. I find this sentiment strange given that the point of Marx was that workers should become collective owners, but it seems to me that Blakeley sees this as an abstraction and an impossibility in today’s capitalist framework. Never mind the current phenomenon were countless of small businesses are being decimated and the aspirations of young people to open their own business in some of the most difficult conditions ever – from Blakeley they should rather keep their pay-cheque. But let’s drop this for a moment and go into some theory. The problem with Blakeley’s argument is that she does this from the stand-point of Mandel’s Marxist idealism whereas private ownership of assets under capitalism, primarily what used to be described as the workers’ collective ownership of the means of production, is not emancipatory given that this collective ownership will still uphold the rules of capitalism in trade and probably even finance. She highlights this point hyperbolically by saying that ordinary people buying stocks “are in an alliance against workers” and supporting companies which do great damage in the “Global South”.

I find this argument non-dialectical, simplistic and akin to Lassalle’s argument of the abolishment of the wages system which Marx derided. The failure of the re-reading of Marx by the left probably stems from the lack of appreciation of history itself which was essential for Marx to break with Hegel through Hegel himself by outlying the dialectical forces of history. And the lack of appreciation for history also stems from the rigid and dogmatic Leninist and Trotskyist views which were adopted by the left as the mainstay of Marxist philosophy. It seems that the left is confident in its misconstrued world-view and speaks as if it is a textbook of Andre Gunder-Frank’s theories while ignoring the massive historical changes that have happened ever since Marx wrote his Communist Manifesto. The point of Marx is to break from economic idealism, but the left is instead building its own idealistic bunker.

Marx can not be read idealistically or from the lack of a historical stand-point. I would say it is even non-Marxist to apply many of Marx’s concepts in today’s world. It should be obvious to a historian that even capitalism itself has changed its form and nature and this is also where Fukuyama gets it wrong with his constant hip-hopping of his endless list of static categories which are imposed on a linear course of history that supposedly explain how and why liberal-democracy and capitalism have mutually grown together. Feudalism took many hundreds of years to change and transform itself, so much so that historians have a difficulty and disagree between them on marking its beginning and the end on exact chronological terms. It is also similar with capitalism. We have seen through the course of the last century great changes to capitalism, most noteworthy, probably, the abolishment of traditional empires and the emergence of new global economic powers like Japan and today, China. Western Europe in the post-Second World War era adopted a new social contract which ensured free healthcare, free education and social mobility and the 1960s European Social Charter also echoes Marx’s words in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts that we should live in a meritocratic economy where people can freely chose their career out of will, desire and ambition and achieve success at it instead of having to forcefully choose a job and work simply to pay the bills. Additionally, the taxation regimes have changed and liberal-democracy have provided the opportunity for people to fight for their interests with their vote creating a wave upon wave of social-legislation which improved people’s lives.

Blakeley underlooks history. Europe after the plague epidemic of the 14th century had a serious labour-shortage which led to many serfs becoming peasants and this was a decisive hit to feudalism in its transition to capitalism. After the Second-World War we have seen changes in capitalism which are distinct from Victorian era-capitalism such as the nationalisation of companies to protect jobs, workers becoming capitalists, the booming of small businesses and the rise of the middle-class, free healthcare and free education, strong welfare states and much more. Although the rich got richer, workers and ordinary people also got richer and had greater access to money and the financial markets. The boomer generation is indistinguishable from the workers and ordinary people of the 1920s and the 1930s. The great material progress made ever since Marx wrote on the abolishment of capital is overwhelming. Marx never denied the incredible forces of capitalism which can produce great wealth. Marx’s problem with capitalism is that its basic legal system was built to make the wealthy wealthier at the expense of free labour. But Marx’s problem with the system of production also had a historical aspect to it and Marx was very aware of this:

The so-called distribution relations, then, correspond to and arise from historically determined specific social forms of the process of production and mutual relations entered into by men in the reproduction process of human life. The historical character of these distribution relations is the historical character of production relations, of which they express merely one aspect. Capitalist distribution differs from those forms of distribution which arise from other modes of production, and every form of distribution disappears with the specific form of production from which it is descended and to which it corresponds.

The relations of production are taking a different character in their historical course thanks to technology and also thanks to the introduction of intellectual property. The invention and widespread use of computer coding drastically increased the meritocratic opportunity in the world of business while the process of value creation took historically different characteristics wherein young and capable coders could build their products and their businesses even single-handedly. Today, the problem is that some of these businesses such as Microsoft and Apple have grown so big as to effectively wield monopolistic power. On the other hand, we have also seen digital companies extracting value from small-business and replacing them with cheap-paying jobs and huge returns to shareholders – case in point is Amazon. Oil brought great changes to the economy as well, but the green-energy transition is also changing that again. Surely, the process of value creation is changing and one can not apply Marx’s literal texts on these themes because they have historical distinctive characteristics from the process of value creation in Marx’s time. Undoubtedly the concept of free-labour in relation to the surplus-value still exists in the capitalist system, and in some sectors of the economy this aberration has actually got worse with new digital brokers and middle-men coming into the scene and taking a cut of the profit from both businesses and workers – Gig economy, Bolt, Uber etc…

Classes are also changing dramatically. The old capitalist-elite has changed dramatically. The financial elite who took over from the industrial elite in the 19th century are now being taken over by the digital elite. The old families who were in the car business ever since cars were invented are being challenged by a young entrant who coded Paypal and then sold it to start an electric-car company and space-company with the aim to go go to Mars. The historical rise of the middle-class, the house equipped with the domestic appliances and the family car, mass-literacy, the huge decrease in poverty and the eradication of polio, has also been met with advent of space-capitalists.

We are of course, still living in capitalism and the financial markets are clear testament of this. The stock market mirrors society’s hierarchy of classes quite explicitly as the massive number of assets available are mostly owned by the very few while the masses own a tiny fraction of it. At the same time, the architecture of finance is changing too. Bitcoin and crypto-currency are changing finance to the extent of making banks obsolete with decentralised finance and Bitcoin platforms which take on the banking role of providing loans and paying interest. So far the left has overlooked this incredible development, despite the fact that the banking system is one of the most important structures which make the system of capital so skewed in favour of those who hold assets at the expense of those who don’t (more on this another time).

The GameStop saga also shows a very interesting reality which was non-existent even a few years ago. Ordinary people can actually, and with concentrated and collective effort cause significant events in the financial market. No, we are not speaking of a systematic event here, and sure, there were investors in the GameStop long like Michael Burry who also made a lot of money on the trade, but by now no one can deny the power of the collective retail investor which can in some situations be very effective and may even put hedge funds out of business. But not only so. GameStop was in fact a classic case of a business going bust due to severe economic conditions and competition by bigger businesses like Amazon. It was shorted aggressively and greedily by hedge funds who were fought back by a retail army who loved their brand. This was a very rare occasion in history where the small fish gathered together and successfully exerted their power in the stock market. Now, of course, the retail guys could have been front-run by the insiders who manage of the plumbing of the system, but no one can deny that this event actually happened just like no one can deny that hedge funds and rich people have been buying billions of Dollars of Bitcoin from small fish who bought in early when hardly anyone wanted to buy it, creating as a result what may be described as one of the biggest wealth transfer events from rich to poor in recent history.

Just because wealth re-distribution doesn’t necessarily abolish capitalism as Mandel said it doesn’t mean it isn’t emancipatory. For many years people have fought for their right to be represented in parliament and be able to vote. When everyone was eventually able to vote, social legislation became more popular. Nowadays, we see more people wanting to participate in the financial markets and many of them feel entitled to make money out of it – this is good. Eventually financial markets will also change due to the increased popular participation and they are already changing – case in point is Bitcoin and crypto-currency. As more and more young people come into the financial markets, the political, financial and economic aspects of the financial system will also change. I’m not saying it will change for the good, but this is history in the making and refusing to accept is akin to once again ignoring the aspirations of ordinary people. The financial system is run by bankers, bureaucrats and big capitalists who set the rules of the game in their favour, but, if thanks to the internet and the democratisation and profusion of knowledge ordinary people are becoming well versed in financial markets, and in some cases even beating hedge funds, then that’s welcome. This will not bring more injustice to the world. So, instead of admonishing young people for trying to get rich from the stock market aby condemning them as “allies of oppressive capital”, socialists should be trying to make sure that many more ordinary people owned assets and even more power in the financial markets. It’s like Proudhon has taken over the left and the moralistic disengagement from the system is the only way out. This idea is absurd and would be equivalent to ask workers to refuse to join trade-unions because they compromise with capitalists. I’m pretty well sure that both Marx and Lenin thought that a tangible improvement in the workers’ life is way much more valuable than a hundred political programmes. Disengaging with the system to adopt moralising platitudes will give you just that: the bleating of age-old slogans. After all, even the British left realised very well in 2010 that engaging with the system, joining Labour and voting in elections is the best way to effect positive and progressive change.

To conclude, Marx’s most famous adage in The German Ideology applies, but the left has once again entered the trap of idealistic remorse. It’s as if the left is stuck in Plato’s post-modern cave creating ideas which are not really applicable outside, a disenfranchised character in a novel by Camus or the woman in the dunes of Hiroshi Teshigahara, resigned to live in the sand for ever. And this is very unfortunate with its results apparent to everyone – the left in the periphery of power while the right keeps winning more and more.