Showing posts with label Occupy movement. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Occupy movement. Show all posts

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

A new campaign is born! Banking on something better with MoveYourMoney UK

I tried to spend Christmas day at the London Occupy camps, but truth be told, I couldn't stay there long and ended up wondering the City instead. Maybe I was just melancholic at spending another solitary Christmas, but I couldn’t help feeling that the original dynamism of Occupy was lost. I sat on the stairs of St. Paul’s and looked at a tent calling for everyone to become a vegan. There’s something slightly futile about that message. There's also something highly prescriptive about it, allowing little space for those who might sympathise in principle with the broad critique of finance, but who don't feel included in the ragtag countercultural facade. The Occupy movement is showing real signs of losing steam, and part of it is simply down to the fact that, when push comes to shove, it doesn't really offer that much to the everyday person.

That’s why I’m so pleased MoveYourMoneyUK arrived on the scene today. The campaign asks people to withdraw their money from the huge 'big 5' UK banks (Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds, RBS & Santander), and to deposit some or all of it into co-operatives, mutuals, credit unions and ethical banks. Coming on the heels of the more abstract Occupy-related campaigns, MYM seems to offer a wider range of people the chance to do something highly concrete, and which can make them feel included in an exciting process of incremental positive change.

CHRIS CLARK lays the smackdown on his Santander Card
While Occupy has offered some people a chance to take part in working groups on alternative economics, those always end up being  long on theory and short on practice, effective at making people stop and think for a moment, but not effective in holding them to any action. Indeed, most people are not pissed of with banks because of something imprecise like ‘neoliberalism’. People are pissed off because of specific issues like bonuses, tax avoidance, unethical investments and speculation, all of which are a step away from the ideological arguments about grand economic structure. A simple action like moving money is a practical step that is available to almost anyone to take part in, because even if people don't agree on all the epic ideological questions (like whether we should have a steady state economy etc.), the banking oligopoly has managed to do specific things that annoy the shit out of most people in some way or other.

I was involved in writing some contributions for the website (including a piece on commodity speculation). The overall narrative regarding the problems with banks has been designed to be as simple and intuitive as possible, and I've sketched it out in the diagram on the left. It goes roughly as follows: We deposit money into banks. Those banks claim that they’re committed to supporting small business and productive enterprise, yet most of their lending seems to go into socially useless activities and speculation. They’re notoriously lax in their ethical policies, investing in shite projects and dubious regimes. Through all of this they’re supported by government subsidy that enhances their profits, and they then take the piss with the huge bonuses, which only serves to distort behaviour and increase systemic risk. To top it all, there are the not-so-small issues of tax avoidance and mis-selling scandals.

The campaign lays this out and then lays out the alternative options for people: Put your money into mutuals and ethical banks that will steer clear of risky speculation, and that focus on supporting SMEs and prudent, socially useful lending. The campaign doesn't claim that alternative banks are perfect, but points out, that unlike the major incumbents, they at least make a lot more effort to be sustainable.

What I like most about this campaign is that it is not just a defensive reaction against the current banking system, but also a chance for people to proactively support and build the alternative. You might not have the time or inclination to be actively involved in policy discussions around financial reform, but you can help animate change by steering your money towards those challengers that are forging a new path against the stagnant and complacent banking status quo. It’s as much a creative vote of confidence in the ability to build something new as it is a protest against the old, and I’m fascinated to see how it might affect the alternative banking institutions.

Anyway, that's enough theorising. Please get involved and pledge to move some or all of your money in March 2012! I've already pledged, not that I have much money to move, and since doing that the high street suddenly looks full of exciting opportunities. Should I move to a big alternative like the Co-op Bank, or maybe a building society like Nationwide, or something much smaller like the London Mutual Credit Union? Watch this space for more on that, and in the mean time, check out the cool new MYM UK video...

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Protectors of Treasure Island: Border Dragons of the Offshore Financial System

Several hundred years back, the City of London was protected by a great stone wall, and access was controlled via several key gates. Aldersgate was in the north, Ludgate was to the west, Aldgate was in the east, and on the south end of London Bridge there was Bridge Gate. Later, others were added, like Bishopsgate, Moorgate, Cripplegate, and Newgate. Nowadays, the physical wall and gates have slipped out of popular memory. To many modern commuters into the City, the Moorgate is nothing but a station on the Northern Line of the London Underground.

Recently, a wing of the Occupy movement set up camp just up the road from Moorgate, in Finsbury Square. Another wing set up in an old building in Sun Street. Like the original St. Paul’s Camp, the new camps seem  like incongruous outposts amidst the black sheet glass and metal frames of buildings housing financial giants. The protesters have managed to take temporary control of small areas of physical space, and yet, do they really have true access to the City?

It seems to me that the walls of the City are still there, only nowadays you can’t see them. They exist in codes and institutions, cultures and hidden political forces, architectural styles and subtle symbols whispering you don't belong here. Finding ways of passing these hidden gates is a great and worthwhile challenge. Before that can be done though, it's good to get a sense of the ancient boundaries of the City. That's why I've been recently visiting the border dragons.

The City border dragons are sentinels on plinths, totem-like creatures lurking at the ancient entrances to the City, originally to warn travelers and act as toll-booths. They’re sometimes called griffins, but they’re actually dragons, dog-like dragons with wings and a forked tongue. Maybe they’re like small versions of Cerberus, Hade’s three-headed hound of darkness that guards the underworld across the river Styx. Indeed, you do find three of them as you cross over the river Thames – two on the south side of London Bridge, and one in the middle of the road on the south side of Blackfriars Bridge.

So where are the others found? The largest border dragon is found at the Temple Bar on Fleet Street, perched by the Royal Courts of Justice like a nazgul from the Lord of the Rings. There are two smaller ones keeping watch in the street next to Chancery Lane tube station on High Holborn. See if you can find the others. There’s one lurking somewhere on Goswell Road in the north, and one next to the Broadgate complex. There's one around Moorgate, and another guarding the area before the Tower of London, somewhere on Byward street.

My favourite border dragons though, are on the Victoria Embankment by Temple Place. They’re slightly larger than most of the dragons, and strangely enough, they used to reside above the entrance to the London Coal Exchange which was demolished in 1963. Word on the street is that they took off and flew into the night, landing on Victoria Embankment two years later.

Some have suggested that the dragons are creatures from mystical treasure islands known as offshore tax havens. Indeed, the City is at the centre of a giant web of such havens, a beating financial heart drawing in money from the opaque offshore jurisdictions and pumping it back out to them again, keeping a global system of secrecy alive. The vast majority of hedge funds and SPVs for example, are incorporated in places like the Cayman Islands, even though they’re managed from offices within London and the US. It poses something of a headache for tax authorities, and also places something of a burden on the broader society which does not have access to the offshore realms. Indeed, it's an open question as to how much of the City of London is even in London, and how much is situated within excel spreadsheets on computers in Bermuda and the British Virgin Islands.

Certainly the City incorporates a lot more physical space than meets the eye. It’s like that scene in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe where the door to Narnia is found. Hidden doors abound in the City, and they lead to parallel universes on Caribbean Shores and Swiss Cantons

So where does this leave access? I'm not sure. The border dragons mark the ostensible borders of the City, but the true borders are scattered and fragmented by a world of shell companies and registered addresses. And we haven't even got into the cultural and political boundaries yet. I guess we’ll have to work on this access issue a bit more in due course. I’ve had controversial views on it before, and they need to be refined.

In the mean time, take some photos of dragons. Put a funny hat on its head, or give it some bling accessories. Please do send the photos on me. I’ll be sure to put them up.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Suitpossum's Ecologist article No.2: Four strategies of subtle financial subversion

Last week I got published in The Ecologist. The article was called A four-step guide to bypassing high street banks. This is my second article for the magazine (my first was on food speculation), and this time the aim was to sketch out how people might engage in financial protest, not by waving placards, but by changing debit cards.

Many people agree in principle that major high-street banks have too much power, and that they frequently abuse that power. Nevertheless, many individuals don't necessarily have the time, or inclination, to protest about it directly in the manner of the Occupy protesters. There's been a lot of discussion about how to make financial protest more inclusive (including this piece by Kenth Gustaffson on a type of ‘virtual occupy movement’), but perhaps one of the most profound (and often overlooked) forms of protest is to distance yourself from mainstream finance by withdrawing deposits and avoiding using the services.

The article is pretty straightforward. It goes through four (UK-focused) strategies:
  1. You can move your money to a more socially responsible bank like the Co-Operative Bank, or to building societies and credit unions
  2. You can invest savings in socially responsible alternatives, including certain investment funds and specialist investments with environmental or social benefits
  3. If you need a loan, you can bypass the mainstream loan system and engage in peer-to-peer (P2P) finance or crowdfunding
  4. If you want to go bold, you can try detach from the mainstream currency system and use alternative currencies
Bypassing mainstream finance is not necessarily easy or convenient, and it's not a solution to the deeper structural problems of the financial sector. Change though, needs to come from many different angles. Regulatory and policy changes are needed, internal cultural changes are needed, and more competition is needed. Moving your money and getting involved in alternative finance is one way to boost competition, and one way to support sustainable finance innovation. It's an act of protest, but in encouraging financial diversity, it's also an act of creativity.

Please do check out the article. Any comments are most welcome, and I’d dig to hear any other suggestions for alternative strategies that I might have missed.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Suitpossum in the Guardian: On Financial Activism and the Occupy Movement

Winter is approaching and it’s looking like one of discontent. St. Paul’s cathedral has become home to a couple hundred protesters freezing in colourful tents, railing against the global financial sector. It's the Occupy London movement.

On Tuesday night I attended the general assembly outside St. Paul's. It was mostly to go through certain housekeeping protocols, like why it’s a bad idea to piss in bottles and throw them into public bins. Other items on the agenda were issues of security and maintaining good relationships with the St Paul’s clergy. It’s calmed down a lot since the first Saturday, when the cops were doing their tacky psychological warfare techniques, whispering sweet nothings like “Sir, if you enter the protest, you may not be able to leave again.” There’s a few cops left now, but they’re mostly blending into the scenery.

I was impressed by the camp food system that has sprung up, driven by kind donations, some from local chains like Pret (which incidentally are making shedloads of cash from cold protesters buying coffee from them). We even managed to get some sushi to go with our homemade vegetable soup. I was slightly less impressed by the public talks that have been occurring, a lot of (what I perceive to be) clich├ęd stuff about neoliberalism and bankers, and in general nothing particularly interesting or new. Indeed, it still seems to be much the same crowd that does all the protests. I suggested during the general assembly discussion group that much more needs to be done to translate the message to a wider audience, lest it fizzle out into a cliquey back-patting exercise.

These issues weigh on my mind a lot, and yesterday I got an article published in the Guardian entitled 'Has the Occupy movement considered subverting global finance from within'. It was pointing out that while occupying a physical space is a worthwhile exercise, I think it’s time activists started pushing the  conceptual boundaries of protest. I want progressive movements to try gain some control of the creative potential of the financial sector.

Needless to say, when you put yourself out there in a public forum (such as the Guardian), you get all sorts of ideologues that try throw knives at you. It was fun defending my ideas, but the ad hominem attacks are pretty disturbing at first. One suggested I wasn’t worthy of being in the human race. A couple attacked my professional credentials. A few attacked my grasp of socialist theory, under the somewhat presumptuous assumption that having read the great Marxian works was a prerequisite to commenting on activist techniques.

Such is the nature of public commentary though, and, on the plus side, some great people have got hold of me to discuss the ideas further. It's really rewarding to hear opinions on how the concept of financial activism could be refined, so please do read the article and post any comments on the Guardian site, or here. I'll be  sure to respond.