Karl (re)Marks - The Karl Sharro Blog

Karl (re)Marks - The Karl Sharro Blog

Architecture, Politics, and general discontent

And now for a completely different take on the world!

This Blog Has Now Moved

BlogsPosted by Karl Sharro Fri, March 12, 2010 16:25:36
This blog has now moved. The political blog is Karl reMarks and the art and architecture blog is IconoPlastic.

انتقلت المدونة العربية الى مسمار منذ اليوم

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As Mad as Madoff: The Mystification of Money

BlogsPosted by Karl Sharro Mon, June 29, 2009 18:35:29

The curious case of Bernard Madoff has become a symbol for the moral lessons that people are trying to draw out of the recession, in fact it only reveals how esoteric the discussion about the economy has become. We've heard very little so far about the structural reasons behind the recession, but we've been flooded by an outpouring of moralistic 'observations' about greed and excess that are apparently behind the economic decline. The case of Madoff is being used to illustrate all the ills of unrestrained capitalism that put us in this position. All that it reveals in fact is how money has now acquired a mystical status that is divorced from any real economic analysis.

The case of Madoff does expose some of the failures of capitalism, but they have nothing to do with the popular and media perception of what the real problems are. The investors who lost their savings with Madoff, and bare in mind that many of those were large international institutions and banks and not only individual investors, revealed how little they knew about what their money was actually invested in. For conservative banks like HSBC to lose money with Madoff it must mean that all their 'safety checks' had some how failed. But this is not a result of malicious intent or unnecessary risk-taking, although it illustrates how the relationship between actual productive enterprise and generating value has been seriously compromised.

The investors with Madoff were looking for magic, somehow they convinced themselves that it is possible to generate serious returns on their investment through Madoff's talents. There is a serious abdication of responsibility here but more importantly an indication of a symptomatic problem: the correlation between productive economic activity and making money has been suspended in the minds of many to detrimental effect. Of course it is unfair to single out investors with Madoff when Western governments had been promoting this folly for many years now. Somehow, the Gordon Browns of the world had managed to convince themselves that in the 'New Economy' value could be generated through an economy that is disproportionately dependant on services and finance in particular.

When the media interviews Madoff's 'victims' they always reveal a common attitude that drew them to Madoff in the first place. They had been looking for the 'holy grail' of investments and Madoff's clever ploys convinced them that he possessed it. The aura of respectability and exclusivity must have enhanced Maddof's appeal, but the real problem is that those investors were already in the position of looking for this type of investment. To mistake that for greed would miss the point, who wouldn't like to make easy and lucrative returns on their money after all?

There is a much deeper problem that could explain not only Madoff's case but some of the wider problems in the economy: the mystification of money. Ponzi schemes are not a new thing, and people have always looked for magical returns on their investments. But for a Ponzi scheme to trick some of the largest institutions in the world and a multitude of regulators, there must be a deeper problem at work. The symptoms of mystification of money were already apparent after the dot com bubble burst at the end of the 90s, but very few people understood that problem in its proper context. The correlation between productive economic activity and generating value had been so severely eroded and compromised that the whole episode was treated as a passing problem instead of a symptom of a deeper crisis within Western economies.

It's not an exaggeration to say that the delusion still persists today. Many people are pinning their hopes on the recovery of the stock markets as if the market along can stand in for the wider economy. Stock markets are good indicators of the health of certain companies and sectors under normal conditions, but their value has been completely exaggerated and divorced from an understanding of other economic indicators and the productivity of the economy as a whole. Central banks and governments have reinforced these misleading trends with their over-reliance on monetary and financial measures to stimulate the economy, starting with the fiddling with interest rates through to bail-outs.

The lessons that should be learned from the Madoff affair is that money should be demystified, and the esoteric discussion about greed needs to be replaced with a discussion about the structural reasons for economic recession. Moral parables will not provide the adequate framework for understanding the real problems, only a cold analysis of the state of capitalism today could offer a solution.

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Michael Jackson: Eccentricity is not a crime

BlogsPosted by Karl Sharro Fri, June 26, 2009 11:54:05

So Jacko's gone, and the eulogies begin. The media that has for so long fed off the 'king of pop' and his tumultuous life are now trying to milk one more story out of Michael Jackson. The BBC was quick to shift into tabloid mode, interviewing anyone that has ever caught a whiff of Michael Jackson or even saw his reflection in a water puddle. Even Gordon Brown, ever eager to shelter in other people's glow, has come up with one of his pathetic statements lamenting the loss of the mega-star that was Michael Jackson. Shameful stuff, it's time to leave the man along and let his family deal with what is after all a private tragedy.

There is one important lesson to be drawn our of Michael's bizarre life: eccentricity is not a crime. The media, shallow, populist and superficial, doggedly hounded Michael Jackson throughout his life, but sank to miserable lows when the allegations of abuse against him became public. In the most despicable example of trial by media, journalists used Michael's eccentricity to prove his guilt time after time, but they were ultimately defeated by the decision of a jury of his peers to clear him the last time around. God bless America and the right to trial by jury, not by a media that has forgotten a long time ago what the pursuit of truth means.

Michael Jackson took eccentricity to new levels, and he was certainly conscious of public attention. Yet, there is a difference between being eccentric and breaking the law. Michael's eccentricity was gloriously audacious, he treated his body as a moldable entity shunning decaying flesh for the sake of plastic longevity. That is part of his appeal, with each re-invention a new Michael emerged, the ultimate fulfillment of the desires of a ravenous fan-base. Bare in mind that Michael Jackson managed to survive decades in the music business, whereas many of his contemporaries dropped off the scene a long time ago. He did not live long enough to have yet another come back, but no doubt it would have been equally amazing for his fans.

Michael's eccentricity was part of his appeal, and the media savagely turned that against him but the public stood by him. Now as the fake tears and the insincere eulogies start, let us remember that the most important thing to take out of Michael's life is that eccentricity is not a crime.

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Art becomes Eco-Conformist

BlogsPosted by Karl Sharro Mon, May 25, 2009 14:15:18
Writing in the times today, Kate Muir announced that eco-art 'will be huge this summer', arguing with typically lame eco-speak that 'Preserving sharks in formaldehyde is over; the days of preserving sharks in the ocean are here." The Barbican is leading the eco-conformist assault with its upcoming exhibition Radical Nature — Art and Architecture for a Changing Planet, followed by Tate Britain's Heaven and Earth, featuring the works of Richard Long. Long in any other age would have been considered an eccentric gardener, today he is considered an accomplished artist by tapping into the sense of insecurity about our 'fragile planet'.

Muir, as ever, knows a lot of big words, but doesn't have a clue how to make meaningful sentences out of them. Like many of her contemporaries, she absorbed a lot of concepts and phrases in college, without really understanding what they signify, but still has the audacity to use such concepts in print. She epitomises that breed of journalists who seem to think that the universe started in 1997, everything prior to that being a giant blob of events and concepts that are too hard to disentangle. This utter unawareness of history comes across in sentences like 'of course, Land Art has been around for ever'. Like, Kate couldn't be bothered to find out, like, when and why.

Muir's complete ignorance is manifested even more painfully in her naive proclamations: '..the new eco-art movement is not merely about the medium, but the message too'. Read: 'on message'. It is not important how banal and mediocre your 'art' is, as long as it is on message, as long as you feel the suffering of Mother Earth in the depths of your soul, and use whatever medium at your disposal to express that pain: sand, snow, rock, and ultimately, and appropriately, manure. Muir is happily preaching us that art will no longer be a selfish endeavour, it shall be put to the service of the great collective eco-whinge, the mighty bout of never-ending eco self-flagellation. Hurrah!

What Muir, and every mediocre curator that has been promoted to a position of responsibility because they are 'on message', doesn't realize is that this vulgar reduction of art to a tool of propaganda is antithetical to the spirit of art. Art has to be free from any such intrusions and demands to be meaningful, art has to revolt and kick back against the prevailing assumptions, and art should never be restrained by the parameters of 'social responsibility'. Art has been used historically as a medium for political protest, but how is that relevant today when everyone has embraced environmentalism? How radical could eco-art be when it is merely repeating what politicians and journalists are constantly babbling about?

Muir's attempt at making eco-art sound heroic are simply pathetic. She tries to portray two artists from Brighton as modern-day revolutionaries, claiming that their 'work exemplifies the combative mood around the country'. And I thought that people are actually worried about losing their jobs and paying their mortgage, silly me. Of course to Muir and her fellow 'organic-wine and fair-trade coffee' 'mentalists, such real-life concerns are not as important as the latest fad in eco-whinging. And this is why she thinks the antics of Hanks and McCurdy, the two eco-artists from Brighton, are examples of radical eco-art.

The pair dabble in the sort of art that bored teenagers and pensioners on holiday usually do, except that they don't think of it normally as art: writing on snow and bio-degradable graffiti. Their cause? Brighton beach is dirty and polluted, plastic is to blame. In a heroic feat, they visit parliament to lobby on behalf the Marine Conservation Society, then they flip their T-shirts, selflessly showing their bras in the process, to reveal messages about the dirty beach. Muir is nearly in tears at this moment, 'as MPs fiddled their expenses in the background and the planet burnt'. Drama straight out of Hollywood.

Of course the real message is: we are two smug, self-centred attention seekers who will do anything to get a bit of attention. That anyone could imagine that this has anything to do with art, or even politics, is a sign of how low public discourse these days is. And how degraded both art and politics have become, allowing such trivial concerns to grab media attention. Yet there is a danger in this trend to tame art and turn it into a medium for channeling social responsibility.

Firstly, there's the unbearable prospect of art being judged not on its intrinsic merits, but in terms of how much it serves a bigger cause. For the record, this is what Fascism historically did, it appropriated art for its own needs. Simply because we imagine eco concerns to be a more noble cause does not justify such an appropriation. Secondly, there's the even more serious prospect of a rigidly conformist society where dissent is not tolerated. Art should strive to liberate itself from the demands of conformity, when it starts seeking to be conformist, we know we are in trouble.

Kate Muir relishes the prospect of eco-art taking center-stage, but this is based on a completely wrong understanding of the nature of art and the parameters within which it operates. The logic of environmentalism has been internalised by the political classes and the media, and there are hardly any dissenting voices these days. Co-opting art into this un-questioning arrangement will not help matters at all, but will lead to more of the banal art that justifies its mediocrity through its important 'message'. In a civilised society we should not tolerate mediocrity, art should strive for excellence not conformity.

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Surveillance society

BlogsPosted by Karl Sharro Thu, May 07, 2009 18:40:18
Surveillance society is once again a hot subject, in light of the DNA database debate. A reminder of my essay on the subject:

"It’s been said before, I am aware, but Orwell was immensely prescient. 1984 has come and gone, leaving behind an entrenched legacy of surveillance made even more powerful by the advancements in monitoring technology in recent years. Query the phrase ‘eye in the sky’ in your search engine of choice, and instead of a biblical reference or even the Alan Parsons Project 1982 hit single, you are referred first to surveillance camera manufacturers. Meanwhile, the unblinking eyes of CCTV cameras keep a constant watch on every street in London, and it seems that the rest of the nation is catching up fast." Read on: http://karlsharro.co.uk/surveillance.html

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The Three Stooges of the Apocalypse

BlogsPosted by Karl Sharro Mon, April 06, 2009 18:22:02
Forget about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, that’s way too dignified for the petty bourgeois grievances that manifested themselves in the Big Tantrum of 09 on the streets of the City of London this past week. The Three Stooges of the Apocalypse is a more apt moniker to describe those lost souls gathered outside the halls of the G20 proceedings, as opposed to their equally confused counterparts who had the pleasure of experiencing the event from within. The Three Stooges of the Apocalypse beautifully sums up the equal measures of banality and doom-mongering that fuelled this middle class tantrum, and as luck would have it, Newsnight assembled three guests on the evening of that most insignificant of demonstrations, each representing one wing of the White Middle Class Anger and Doom-Mongering apparatus. For the duration of their chat with Jeremy Paxman, they faithfully re-enacted the antics of the original Three Stooges, although too much less humorous results. Like a bird with three wings, this is a freak of nature that didn’t fly far.
Our Three Stooges of the Apocalypse for the night were Barbara Stocking, the Director of Oxfam, or White Woman Knows What is Best for Africa, Mark King, from the Camp for Climate Action , or White Man Knows What is Best for the Planet, and the comedian Mark Thomas, or White Man Knows What is Best. (In some circles he is known as the least funny comedian in the universe, perhaps he should be investigated by the Trading Standards Agency).
Paxo was atypically restrained, focusing most of his characteristic ire on the International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander, the boy-wonder of New Labour, and gently sheltering his fellow members in The White Middle Class Liberal Club. Paxo gently prodded The Three Stooges, what’s their wish list for G20 decisions? Barbara Stocking: Financial Stimulus for poorer nations, presumably to be distributed through Oxfam and like-minded Neo-colonialists so that they can prepare poor African farmers for the challenges of goat-herding in the 21st century and shelter them from the nasty syndromes of development that the west is suffering from, such as clean drinking water and functioning public transport systems. Mark Thomas: Get rid of tax havens! For a self-described radical, Thomas is certainly tame, managing to agree with Angela Merkel and Nicola Sarkozy, perhaps the most conservative politicians in Europe today, and the two who have absolutely no clue about what to do except to appear to be challenging the US and the UK without actually doing so. Thomas thought that tax havens, where most hedge funds are based, are what caused the crisis. Forget about the de-industrialisation of the West and the lack of productivity in paper economies that produce very little but consume more than anyone else, and let’s demonise the faceless hedge funds. Mark King (ponytail? Seriously, dude?): Climate Change! (Surprise, Surprise!) He even came prepared with a sound byte, the climate doesn’t do bailouts! The greens are definitely getting better script writers these days, but you have to agree with Obama, put lipstick on a pig… (or even a ponytail).
Mark King doesn’t like the dinosaur that is high-carbon industry. But he and his fellow greens don’t like low-carbon industry either. They hate industry full stop. Why are they focusing on aviation, which is one of the smallest producers of carbon emissions? The Greens have consistently opposed any technological solutions for Climate Change preferring to reduce consumption and smother demand, and solve the problem at is root. Kill aspiration and progress, but save the planet. How do they square the circle between their demands for caps on CO2 emissions which would lead to more economic problems by reducing productivity, God only knows. Or Gaia.
Yet, it was entertaining to see The Three Stooges do their act and expose how little they know, and how little they understand the world we live in, and the real reasons for the economic slump. (I think the sound of the recession happening sounds somewhat like slummmmp.) The solution is more industry, in the West and the Rest, more productivity, more investment in real infra-structure as opposed to meaningless subsidies for inefficient energy technologies such as solar panels on flats in London. And while we’re at it, let’s not politicise the energy question, and release from the confines of the climate change discussion. The real energy question is how we can get more energy, way more energy, cheaper, cleaner and more available, everywhere. So that we can fly more, produce more, and have more. So that one, every family in Africa can have a large house, two cars, and take a holiday in Europe every year. (They can go somewhere else if they want, it’s merely a suggestion).
To The Stooges of The Apocalypse, the world is passing you by, you are holding centre-stage now, but you are irrelevant. The media’s obsession with your every little action or utterance does not mean anything in the real world, and your mates from Cambridge or Oxford will not dictate the course of events in the long run. One day, the workers in this country will wake up, and then your antics will be over. Think of your next show.

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Thoughts on the Satanic Verses Affair

BlogsPosted by Karl Sharro Mon, March 30, 2009 13:41:39
I watched The Satanic Verses Affair late last night on the BBC, and thought it was really good. Salman Rushdie isn't the perfect hero of free speech, but who is? It's a great reminder that people's real character emerge through their conflict with the world, and their ideas are shaped by this encounters, life is not a Hollywood film. Rushdie made a lot of concessions, re-converted to Islam, issued apologies, and then announced that his experiment with Islam was over and admitted that he hadn't converted out of conviction.

Hanif Kureishi came across as a more heroic figure, dismissing Rushdie's enemies as the 'bearded ones', but he didn't have to go through what Rushdie experienced. The real hero to me was Frances D'Souza entirely committed to the cause of defending Rushdie's right to free speech without compromise, she was very convincing in her defense of the principled stance that drove her and her colleagues to form the International Committee for the defence of Rushdie.

The other notable contributor to the program was Inayat Bunglawala, one of the Islamic activists who were shaped by the Rushdie affair and took their first steps in politics through the campaigns to ban the book. At the end of the program, Bunglawala admitted that they were wrong in calling for the book to be banned and for supporting the Fatwa against Rushdie. Instead, he said, they should have fought it on 'the plain of ideas'. It's an amazing admission, and shows that at least some people did learn from the whole episode.

If Islamic 'fundamentalists' manage to learn the value of free speech, perhaps the environmental 'movement' should take notice that its tactics of intimidation and accusing people of denial do not serve its cause. Who's more reactionary today, an Islamist whose willing to discuss his most sacred ideas publicly or an environmentalist who goes out of his or her way to silence opponents?

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Dam those Ethiopians!

BlogsPosted by Karl Sharro Fri, March 27, 2009 18:12:29
Another day, another Western campaign to prevent a Third World country from developing. As has become customary, the BBC instead of covering 'both sides of the story' is so skewed in its coverage to the extent that it has become a party in this debate. The Gilgel Gibe III hydroelectricity project in Ethiopia will be in impressive feat of engineering once it's completed in 2012, rising to a height of 240m, the highest of its kind in the world, and creating a reservoir 150 kilometres long. It will double Ethiopia's current generating capacity, allowing it to sell the surplus to its neighbours in exchange for hard currency, bringing extra economic benefit to the country.

This will be clean, renewable energy, and it is the type of project that governments in the West should be doing instead of wasting their time on solar panels on top of houses in places like London, where the Sun hardly ever shines. Instead of celebrating the project, the eco-whining has started in force, led by some turnip called Richard Leakey, a white Kenyan ecologist who has accused the Ethiopian government and energy company of fiddling with the environmental impact statements in order to pass the approval for the project.

The BBC and their fellow opponents of the dam have been focusing on the fate of about half a million tribes people who live down river of the dam, claiming that this will lead them into a civil war. The BBC television coverage last night was so hysterical and scare-mongering that it was impossible to take it seriously. Of course the BBC managed to summon someone "from the local community" to voice opposition to the dam, in this case an elderly man whom someone had obviously prepped for the interview with enough myths to scare him into giving his 'testimony'. Then in a classic example of how the BBC is blurring the line between drama and news, they lined up a number of tribesmen with their Chinese Ak47's, posing menacingly for the camera. But we will never know they were there, for all we know it was just a photo shoot for them.

What is quite obvious about the whole episode is that Western media and environmentalists think now that their word is more important than that of a sovereign, democratically elected government. What Ethiopia does on its own territory is its own business, and it's up to the Ethiopian people to contest or support the dam project. The BBC has a responsibility to cover general interest stories, but doesn't have a mandate to become a party to this debate, as it clearly becoming through its skewed coverage. Equally, I would rather listen to the Ethiopian people who will benefit from the project, rather than to the "African Resources Working Group", described by the BBC as a 'collection of European, American, and East African academics" who are also critical of the way the environmental impact statement has been carried out.

Leakey and the other 'scientists' have not actually pointed out any serious flows with the report itself, all they are relying on is the 'precautionary principle', the last refuge of the contemporary eco-scoundrel. If they had anything tangible against the project, they would have presented it, instead they are summoning the prospect of some future unforeseen consequence that might prove that the dam project is harmful. If humanity had always taken decisions this way, we would still be living in caves, where Leakey and his colleagues would presumably be warning us against using fire before we complete an 'environmental impact statement'.

The disturbing thing about this whole saga is how little trust Western media and 'scientists' have in African governments, as if the Ethiopian government would have anything to gain by depriving half a million people of their livelihood or forcing them into a civil war. This is the most blatant example of Western racism that masquerades behinds science and ecological concerns, to claim that Africans cannot be trusted to run their own countries. But, for once, it seems that Ethiopian officials are standing up to those interfering Western scientists and journalists. The energy minister and the head of the Electricity Corporation have defended their right to develop the project, and they both argued that Ethiopia needs this project for it to develop.

Those who prefer to see Africans still living without the basic necessities that they take for granted at home are only expressing their patronising contempt for African people and governments. This is not the colonial racism of yesterday, but one that is far more insidious and potentially destructive, it claims that it wants to save Africans from themselves by making sure they stay in mud huts. Any decent progressive in the world should oppose these interfering and patronising attitude.

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