Category Archives: Democracy

Angola and Portugal, a common struggle?

We are often confronted about the huge amounts of money some Angolan citizens spend in Portugal. We often read about their investments as well. We often tend to think it is a good thing.

As you may know, the Portuguese economy is frozen. We don’t have much money to neither invest nor to consume so any extra help will do.

There’s also the fact that Angola is a sovereign country. If there is money leaving the country against the best interest of the people, it is in first place their problem.

Now imagine there’s this guy who steals gold for living. He robs people on the streets, he robs from houses, whatever. He’s a total thieve. Let’s say he even took a necklace from my grandmother on her way to the supermarket, hurting her knees along the way.

The fact is that there are plenty of places buying gold without any consideration regarding the origin. So this inglorious thieve has the incentive to keep on robbing as he knows there will always be a buyer.

And what do you expect the owner of the place to do? Do you really expect him to say something about it and end up ruinning his beautiful business? With this economy? No way, a man’s gotta eat. I’m sorry for the old lady though, she should start carrying a gun or something.

My point is that laxity is dangerous: when you decide to take the dirty money you are actively incentivating corruption and deviant behaviour. There will always be excuses for doing it though, that’s why it is so dangerous to accept it the first time.

But back to our topic: all this investment from Angola, where does the money come from? Are those personal investments or is the money coming from the government budget? Is there even a difference?

Is it thievery? Or is it good business?

It is common knowledge that bags and bags full of money arrive ‘undercover’ from Luanda to the Lisbon airport. However, nobody (at least nobody with power to do anything) seems to find it weird.

Isabel dos Santos, the daugther of the President Eduardo dos Santos, is according to the Forbes magazine the most powerful woman in Africa. Her first business was Unitel, the biggest mobile operator in Angola, in partnership with Portugal Telecom and the state-owned Sonangol.

With Sonae, Isabel dos Santos took Continente retail stores to Angola.

In Portugal, Isabel dos Santos owns relevant shares on companies such as banks BPI and BIC, Galp Energia and Zon Multimedia, who is expected to acquire Optimus from Sonae.

There are rumours connecting such prodigious daughter to everything from traffic of diamonds to political bias, inside trading and lobbying. Without surprise, it looks like Portuguese elites are all over these schemes.

As companies and economic agents in Portugal try to make a profit out of the situation, they are enduring a regime of oppression in one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking 148th on 2013 HDI rankings, behind countries like Pakistan or Bangladesh.

So there is a common struggle after all: responsability.

Anarchism in Portugal

Anarchism has very deep intelectual roots in Portugal even though some believe (and are probably right) that the anarchist heritage is not much of an evidence in our present society.

Júlio Henriques, for instance, makes the interesting point that the anarchist failure is observable in the common prevalence of verticalized forms of treatment (such as ‘você’ – equivalent to the french ‘vous’) among people.

The great José Cardoso Pires described Portugal in the 60s the ‘country of doctors’, in satirization of the Portuguese ‘titlecracy’ and our fascination for titles such as ‘sua excelência’, ‘senhor doutor’, ‘senhor engenheiro’ and so on.

Presently, decades after the Revolution of 1974, more horizontal forms of relationship such as ‘citizenship’ are still to fully develop, exemplifying the stratification of the contemporary Portuguese society and the maintenance of a set of values and institutions from more salazarist times.

Even inside the libertarian movement, and mostly since 1930, the very hierarchized communist organizations (with a little help from their Russian friends) have gained the edge over the traditionally more horizontal anarcho-syndicalist organizations that had characterized the movement from 1910 to 1926.

So what remains to be seen from the anarchist movements in Portugal?

The academic movement of the ‘geração de 70’ (also known as the Coimbra’s ‘gold Generation’) was deeply influenced by Proudhon‘s ‘Mutualism’. Eça de Queiroz, Antero de Quentral (notably on ‘Odes Mordernas’) and Oliveira Martins, among others, incoporated its core ideas into their work in a variety of ways.

However, after failing to change the country with their writting and revolutionary ideas, like they had promised to, such generation became known (along with other personalities such as Ramalho Ortigão) as the ‘vencidos da vida’ (‘the losers of life’).

Time would prove them wrong, as Portuguese cultural production (literature, film, music and so on) still has to find ways to depart from the Queirosian rupture/paradigm.

Portuguese anarchist movements were not able to transmit their legacy because many of them were dizimated in the final battles before the implementation of the Military Dictaroship (1926) in Portugal but also in the Spanish Civil War, fighting, guns on their hands, against Franco.

The ones who survived and didn’t ran way from the country were among the first victims of the Dictatorship, being quickly persecuted, arrested and deported to Timor or Tarrafal.

Their legacy is one of struggle towards auto-determination and emancipation.

Other, less direct, influences can be drawn from such movement. Proudhon has always favored local institutions, such as workers associations, cooperatives and cooperative credit unions for workers.

Some investors have since then reformulated Proudhon’s idea (he argued that no interests should be charged in such credit schemes) in order to construct strong businesses like Rabobank, Crédit Agricole and, of course, Crédito Agrícola here in Portugal, networks of local implemented mutualist banks.

Personally, the core idea I like to retain from the anarchist heritage is one that combines the right for individual emancipation of all human beings, the need for direct political action and the responsible practice of active citizenship.

From the ‘geração de 70’, more generally, we can learn the critical importance of conquering cultural spaces, outside the formal political scope, for political struggle.

What we really pay taxes for

«Taxes» must be the most employed word in Portugal these days and with tax increases always comes the same question: what do we pay taxes for?

Those on the right side of the political spectrum can give you a clear answer: for nothing (unless, of course, there are ‘urgent’ and ‘unavoidable’ needs for ‘budgetary consoliation’, as we, they say, experience today).

Hardcore neoliberal policy markers often defend the called ‘trickle-down economics’ approach, arguing that tax cuts on the rich, at expense of cuts on the welfare state machine, «the fat», would pump both savings and investment, leading the way to the construction of vibrant societies. Such circumstances, they would continue, constitute environments prone to economic growth and job creation, benefits shared, in relatively equal fashion, among all citizens of a country or region.

Short version of the story: the rich get a banquet, while the poor put on a fight for the crumbs. That’s ok, that’s just normal not to throw privileges out the window.

Culturaly speaking, most common arguments from the right emanate from prejudiced conceptions of «the poor» as lazy, perhaps drunk, perhaps dirty, primitive, weak and most certainly unvirtuous – as an object or some sort of a dead body, with no soul. A zombie. The decent folk, they say, must not carry such weight on his shoulders. Autch, be aware of the back spasms sir.

However, and here starts the interesting part, the right is not alone such dehumanizing discoursive practices. The leftist rational for charging taxes to feed of the social state has been disappointing so far and it goes something like this: «the poor are not so well off as we [the rich], they are victims of quite a lot of hard luck and it won’t hurt us to give them some help». Oh thank you my lord for such kindness and generosity!

Such ‘paternalism’ derives itself from unfairness, verticality and distance, reinforcing the oppressive structures operating within our societies. Charity represents an act of oppression as long as it does not imply a real feeling of «togetherness», a feeling of unity around the common struggle against a system that exploits some in benefit of others.

I believe taxes and, more broadly, the Welfare State, to be necessary to promote inclusive development, social change and poverty erradication, by providing universally the tools necessary to deliver emancipation.

Those who have the resources must understand they need to contribute not to maintain the status quo but to level the playing field instead, helping those in the bottom of the social pyramid to build the new capacities they need to live fulfilled lifes.

Social justice, in this sense, and quoting from the great Paulo Freire, is about getting everybody out there «living for themselves instead of living for others».

State Budget 2013 Portugal: housekeeping?

Portugal’s PR approved today the State Budget proposal presented by the Government for 2013. The adjustment will, not surprisingly, continue to be pursued by collecting an additional revenue of 4,3 billion € on taxes.

This additional revenue will be created  by increased income taxes. This year the Value Added Tax on goods and services, which represents about 36% of the whole fiscal revenue, will remain stable, mostly because the increases verified in both 2010 and 2011 did not lead to any additional returns. In fact, the revenues derving from VAT are today lower than they were in 2007 or 2008 and tend to shrink even further with prospects of anemic economic activity.

In this sense, the option for the increase of income taxes can be explained with their greater degree of  imunity to the effects described by the Laffer’s curve, a graphic representation that sugests the existence of an inverted U shaped relationship between tax rates and tax revenues.

A number of other tax increases will contibute to cut further on households’ available income for the year to come, despite the alerts coming from all different sources about the importance of counter-cyclical policies and, more generaly, of economic growth. There’s no doubts that the absense of economic growth in recent years, notably in the last decade, is the main catalyst for the whole crisis, yet very little is being done to put the Portuguese economy on the growth path again.

This budget targets, as its predecessor did, the effects and not the causes of the crisis. Not only will it cause great pain among Portuguese families as it will prove to be insufficient to achieve its own goals. Probably the greatest danger of this budget is the unrealistic macro scenario supporting it, far more optimistic than anyone but government officials is expecting.

The biggest problem of the Portuguese economy has been, for several years, on the supply side and, until production is back on track, very little can be done about the economy aside, as the budget proposal shows very clearly, housekeeping measures.

Appart from it, the sacrifices demanded from the families are unethical and raise old questions about democracy and the legitimacy of today formal politics. First of all, we don’t know who the hell is governing this country but we are very sure that they are not the people we appointed, very democratically, to do so.

Finally, the whole deterministic concept of “hey fellow citizens we all have to do this, whether we want it or not, because there is no choice” is anti-democratic, anti-humanistic and reveals, if not other things, a deep lack of ideas, courage and pragmatism.

Transparency International CPI2012 shows Portugal must target corruption

Transparency International has just released its Corruption Perceptions Index 2012 and Portugal scores 63/100, ranking 33rd this year, one place below last year’s position and 3 points above the Cape Verde islands.

As austerity strengthens there’s no similar counterpart in anti-corruption measures to be issued by the political and governmental power in order to provide greater accountability of its actions and that of its employees.

It’s sad to verify such reality as prevalent corruption constitutes a “dirty tax”, leading to the appropriation of resources by public officials and to undesirable allocations of public investment from a development perspective.

Austerity combined with corruption leads to increasingly higher taxes with increasingly lower returns, a familiar cenario to most southern Europeans. On the other side, less corruption means better public investment with lower costs.

Said that, it’s frustrating to see Portugal ranking a barely positive grade as government officials demand so much from its citizens. Not only corruption takes away scarce resources from the economy but it also deteriorates competitiveness, budget consolidation and social stability, three major vectors of the structural adjustment programme itself.

Public distrust undermine political institutions,  triggering widespread trickle-down corruption and the construction of rent-seeking societies as a whole. In other words, if the wealthy and the powerful are corrupt and their corruption is tolerated by the guardians of the law, then there’s no real incentives for any other citizen to comply other than their ability to sleep at night.

Quality public investment is one of the most important channels of development and poverty alleviation. Low quality public investment often hurts the more vulnerable households who need it most, enhancing inequality and perpetuating poverty cycles. That playing along with the lack of information and accountability of the government officials creates the potential for greater social arrest and, consequently, further corruption, as can be seen in the case of Greece.

The above constitutes argument for the implementation of a strong anti-corruption policies, enhancing transparency and accountability towards closing the ever increasing gap between formal political institutions and the civil society.

Governance is an issue for a 38 years old Portuguese democracy approaching its midlife crisis at a fast pace. Portugal CPI (63/100) is below EU15 average CPI (72/100) and in line with EU27 average CPI (64/100). However, Portugal CPI is above PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) average CPI (51,5/100), mostly because of the aberrant CPIs presented by both Italy (42/100) and Greece (36/100).

The 16 point difference between the Portugese score and the EU15 – PIGS average CPI (79/100) sugests that Portugal can learn something from the experience of its neighbours, although there’s no applicable recipe for erradicating corruption.

It is clear that anti-corruption measures must play a significant role in shaping the future of the structural ajustment plans applied in southern Europe as Italy and Greece, especially, are perceived to be among the 3 most corrupt EU nations (the other is Bulgaria). In case these national governments don’t deal directly with such problems it is likely that further pressions for deviant behaviour emerge along with strengthened austerity.

The PALOP (African countries with Portuguese as official language) average CPI is 36/100. Mozambique (31/100 CPI), Guinea-Bissau (25/100 CPI) and Angola (22/100 CPI) rank among the most corrupt countries in the world. Botswana (65/100 CPI) and Cape Verde (60/100 CPI) are among the examples to emulate in Africa.

The New Politics of Resistance

Today is appointed another General Strike in Portugal. As usual, it turns out to be little more than a public transportation strike. It is true that other public employees are not leaving their homes to work but, overall, the representation of the event is ridiculously low comparing to the discourse of the leaders of the national labor unions (portuguese sindicatos), who tend to emphasize such events as trustful signs of the will of the national workforce. I’m working today and so are my mother and my stepfather, both of them professors in a public school. Additionally, I actually came to work using the same customary public transportation (CP) I always do – just like in the last general strike.

The question here is: why should this happen in a country where people feel so discontent and exploited? Other demonstrations, like this one, one year ago, managed to combine nearly 300 thousand people, so the problem has nothing to do with loss of faith or will to change, whether by the youth or the more conventional labor movement. The problem may, very probably, be the labor unions. Soares dos Santos, an influent person (and employer) down here, used such an argument yesterday, adding that the labor unions are in the middle of a crisis themselves, falling short on associates and facing decreasing power and representation.

Labor unions, like other formal political institutions, are organisms embedded in the social and cultural context of the country. As the context evolved, such institutions managed to stay increasingly steady and rigid, unable to move forward together with social change. This is why they fail to assemble support in a context where class struggle lost significance comparing to other forms of identity, based on post-materialistic values. Other groups, built upon other forms of identity, such as religion, cultural meanings, sexual orientation or genre, and using other forms, more decentralized, of mobilization and organization, symmetrically, are gaining importance by the day. These groups promote autonomy, don’t require formal membership or affiliation and give the people the possibility of being part-time activists, preferentially outside their workplace and after their working hours.

This is a big change in the way of making bottom-up politics and this explains, in part, the growing importance of the what happens in the periphery – the outside that belongs, of the formal political system. People prefer new forms of organization, other than labor unions; have new concerns, broader than materialistic, production based, traditional issues; and privilege other forms of action, outside their workplace and favoring individual autonomy.

Said this, this is why, although being actually very concerned with the current path of the country, I’m going to work now: because disruptive times deserve disruptive measures. And traditional labor unions chronically fail to provide anything new. New social movements already proved to be important vectors of social change, but new steps are required in order to take back politics to the people and to increase representation and resistance.

The right call for Mr. Papandreou? As Portuguese, I believe so.

The question is: did he really have any other option? In need of wide national support and with Greece diving on social convulsions this is an obvious call. The markets don’t like, the European leaders don’t like (and feel betrayed; Merkel just needs a motive to kick Greece out of the eurozone so extra caution is needed), the opposition don’t like and want elections (?).  Despite the obvious danger of reproval and its implications, here are 3 reasons why I believe Mr Papandreou’s call for referendum on next aid package can turn to be a smart move:

1. Effectiveness: increasingly centralized decisions with increased delegation of power from national populations to their central governments and European entities make such plans hard to implement, to relate with, to adopt and ultimately to produce the expected results. People feel the austerity to be exogenously imposed, to come from outside without regard for their real problems and challenges and for their daily reality. It smells like imperialism. Remember the 99%? People want to have the power to decide, people want to have the final voice. A more participative model is essencial in order to regain people’s confidence and ,far more importantly, people’s faith. An underrated feature of more inclusive models is responsability: once you’re part of the decision, you’re responsible for the results. If Greek politicians and the international community work together to convince the population about the necessity and the beneficial effects of the new aid plan they gain more than markets’ confidence: they win people over;

2. Fairness: moreover, centralized decisions tend to forget and do not take into account certain segments of population and the interests of all the involved parts (all the population affected by the austerity measures); in this sense, democracy turns out to be a matter of political justice instead of political (and economic) desirability. Central governments are not able to defend (or even to understand or collect information about) everyone’s interests. Since just part of the society is (directly or indirectly) represented in the negotiations, democracy stands out as the more effective way to achieve social justice;

3. Security: this is consequence of the two above; prevalent and still increasing social convulsions (they began in 2008, do you remember?) make Greece an awful place to make politics. Security is the greatest responsability of the State as well as the greatest necessity; you need to provide your citizens (and their belongings) with security and you need security to provide you with power and autonomy. Even investors, although apparently not really concerned about the two other reasons above (erroneously), understand this; if anarchy takes power they can lose both their money and their property (assuming they have some). Therefore, since security is the most essential good you can provide to your citizens, to your creditors and to yourself, calling a referendum is an obvious move before calling extra austerity measures. The reasons why I believe it should help are above.

And I’m personal about it.