30 June 2012

Saw the scavenger departing, taking warm hearts to the cold

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair
Greg Palast at the University of London Union, London, Tuesday June 26th
Yes, these pages have been a bit quiet this week, though not because (or not solely because) of work commitments, collapsed ceilings and general malaise. This week I have mostly been... in London.

That's right, I decided to pack up my troubles in my old kit bag and escape the confines of this little pit of cess that I like to call home and head off to the sprawling metropolis on the other side of the polar front that has until very recently kept Ireland in the grip of a monumental depression (of both the weather and our general emotional state), the occasion of this trip being the UK launch of Vultures' Picnic, the latest book from everyone's favourite curmudgeonly journalist-in-a-fedora, Greg Palast.

I read Vultures' Picnic at the start of the year, and while to my mind it is not his strongest book (I still prefer Armed Madhouse for providing the world with "Don't Taze me Bro"), the investigations of the nefarious deeds of BP and global Vulture funds are both eye-opening and jaw-dropping, written in a journalism-noir style that reads like a Dashiell Hammett hammered out on a martini-soaked Royal portable.

Accompanying Palast at the launch were Warren Ellis, creator of Transmetropolitan, the comic that inspired a thousand gonzo hacks to first pick up an angry keyboard, and Laurie Penny, who by her own admission was one of them, and rather pleasingly they were all as interesting in real life as they are in print, if not more so.

Ellis gave an introduction to Palast that came, somewhat appropriately, after Palast had already spoken for about forty minutes, in which he explored the imaginary nature of money:
Economics is an artform. It’s the art of the invisible. Money is fictional...

It’s not real. Cash has never been real. It’s a stand-in, a fiction, a symbol that denotes money. Money that you never see. There was a time when money was sea shells, cowries. That’s how we counted money once. Then written notes, then printed notes. Then telegraphy, when money was dots and dashes, and then telephone calls. Teletypes and tickers. Into the age of the computer, money as datastreams that got faster and wider, leading to latency realty where financial houses sought to place their computers in physical positions that would allow them to shave nanoseconds off their exchanges of invisible money in some weird digital feng shui, until algorithmic trading began and not only did we not see the money any more, but we can barely even see what’s moving the money, and now we have people talking about strange floating computer islands to beat latency issues and even, just a few weeks ago, people planning to build a neutrino cannon on the other side of the world that actually beams financial events through the centre of the planet itself at lightspeed.

Neutrinos are subatomic units that are currently believed to be their own antiparticle. Or, to put it another way, they are both there and not there at the same time. Just like your cash. Just like fiction: a real thing that never happened.

Money is an idea.
Its impossible not to see the sinewy form of Spider Jerusalem spewing forth these words from the centre of a darkened rubbish-filled room, face blue-lit by a dozen flickering screens, and you can read the rest of his post-introduction here.

While Palast mostly gave an overview of the book and its investigations, during the panel discussion afterwards he mentioned something that really caught my attention. Throughout the book he is paying particular attention to Paul Singer, one of the "vulture" investors that gives the book its title. Amongst other things Vulture funds essentially buy up national debt owed to one country by another for a discounted rate, and then pursue the indebted country through international courts for the full amount of the original debt, plus interest and penalty fees. Liberia experienced a sustained attack from these funds, now Greece is currently receiving this treatment. Singer, one of the worst practitioners of this dark financial art (now outlawed in the UK thanks to one of Palast's television reports), is also one of the largest financial contributors to Mitt Romney's Presidential campaign.

In recent weeks President Obama has stepped up his opposition to both Vulture funds and hedge funds in general, and as Palast explained the current US presidential campaign has almost nothing to do with Republicans VS Democrats, but with the battle for control of the future of capitalism in the post-neoliberal world between the traditional Wall Street giants (Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley etc), all of whom are heavily invested in Obama, and the upstart Hedge funds who make substantial profits by betting against the success of Wall Street, and are the new financial masters of the Republican party.

It is a battle worthy of a Hollywood tag line, because whichever side wins, we all lose.

The evening proved to be a real eye-opener, and if you ever get the chance to see Palast in person I strongly encourage you to go.

And if you live in Ireland you will have not one, but three opportunities next week. On Monday night he will be in Carrick-On-Shannon at the ironically named Bush Hotel at 8pm, and on Tuesday he will make two appearances in Dublin, at 1pm in Connolly Books and at 7:30pm in the Ireland Institue on Pearse Street, all three appearances being hosted by the No Fracking Ireland folks.

If you can you really should go along, you might not agree with everything he says, nor how he says it, but you can be guaranteed that the night will not be uninteresting.

(as an aside I watched the first episode of Aaron Sorkin's new series on HBO The Newsroom, this week, which coincidently dealt with one of the BP-related escapades that Palast covers in Vultures' Picnic. If you've seen the episode, have a look at Warren Ellis' take here.)

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