Liberal and anarchist

See LIBREXPRESSION, www.libex.eu

The Economist stresses that liberal values are essentially about respecting the individual and protecting freedom and the common good, as well as propagating «open markets and a limited state administration».

The manifesto laments the loss of these values over the past 25 years, as liberal practices have ceded to populism, pessimism, hierarchy and elitism.

These claims are supported by books like The Retreat of Western Liberalism and Has the West Lost it? as well as articles like «Is Democracy Dying» and «What’s Killing Liberalism?» (Foreign Affairs/The Atlantic). In the past six months The Economist has scrutinised liberal values including the cases in which liberals have failed. They remind us that the liberals of the 19th century were actually radical in the original meaning of the word – getting to the root of social problems to make fundamental necessary changes. By the grace of liberals, we now have a life expectancy well above the 30 years that were the norm when The Economist was founded, and liberal policies have led to a five-fold increase in educated adults since then.

In their editorial, The Economist discussed how a new liberal meritocracy has gradually ended up restricting freedom for the few. Many seemed to forget the foundation of liberal values: that we are all born the same and thus deserve the same opportunities. The liberal elites and the ruling class have for some time lived in a bubble: they go to the same schools, marry each other, live on the same streets and meet in the same fora. Consequently, they are criticised for not having hindered «wars, financial crisis, technification, refugee migrants and chronic precariousness». They also denounce the shameful conservative bent of many liberals, making them unwilling to confront the changing times and «afraid to defend deeper reforms». They have reaped too many benefits from the existing system, The Economist writes.

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An Alternative Crypto-Nation

Bitnation

Susanne Tarkowski Tempelhof founded the webpage Bitnation four years ago. Her aim was to create voluntary, decentralised and web-based communities. Today 15,000 people use Bitnation’s systems based on the crypto-currency Ethereum and blockchain technology.

Bitnation currently provides trade and marriage contracts, global passports, property deeds, birth certificates and identification papers for refugees. They work with what they call an «open-source governance» – a kind of «do-it-yourself» strategy with so-called smart contracts replacing lawyers and using their own set of laws and rules within small-scale communities. Bitnation now functions as an alternative government alongside public and private authorities.

The community consists of small, public forums that function as negotiation platforms, and where participants are rated according to behaviour. You can set up insurances, contracts and diplomas that cannot be plagiarised or destroyed. Perhaps exam papers will be next?

«I object to the idea that a majority can impose their will onto an individual. My will should not be controlled by a majority.» – Susanne Tarkowski Tempelhof

Their latest development is the so-called «smart contract», generated by artificial intelligence: You write a few normal sentences, and like magic they are transformed into a real contract that can be crypto-signed. Bitnation has also been given a substantial amount of attention in The Economist and The Wall Street Journal for their creative use of blockchain technology, which has been used to assist in the refugee crisis.

Husband, partner and co-owner of the company, James Fennell Tempelhof, accompanies Tarkowski on her travels around the world. In an updated «manifesto», the couple and others declare that the purpose of this new «nation» is to liberate «humankind from the oppression and sanction of pooled sovereignty, geographical apartheid and the xenophobia and violence that is nurtured by the nation state oligopoly.»

From Sweden to Afghanistan

I arrange to meet with Tarkowski after a secret seminar she has led for a group of separatists in Barcelona seeking to establish a Catalonian bitnation. I am especially keen to ask her about her personal values and philosophy. What kind of a personality drives the woman who has successfully united a large group of crypto-anarchists in alternative communities to have a state of their own?

Susanne Tarkowski Tempelhof

Tarkowski tells me that her Polish father was a stateless refugee for ten years, while her mother is French. After being born in Sweden, Tarkowski and her family lived in many different countries.

«I never really understood the point of a nation state. When I returned to Sweden at 20, it was difficult for me to follow the rules and codes in society. Why can’t we choose between different forms of government? Or get coupons to choose where to buy health services, for example?» she asks.

Tarkowski did not stay in Sweden for long. «The Swedish form of government takes control over vital functions. Parents are not fully responsible in the upbringing of their children, and children do not take care of their parents. Neighbours ignore each other. You expect the state to do everything for you.»

For seven years, Tarkowski worked for the American administration, including several years in Afghanistan where she assisted Afghans in building their own nation and developing a local government. She also spent a year in Benghazi in Libya during the civil war and has worked in Washington D.C., Egypt, and Pakistan. Her critical attitude to the public state emerged from her experiences in these places, and her long-held visions were reignited.

«During the seven years I worked for the United States, I saw a lot of misery. I saw people get killed, blown to pieces, kidnappings. And instead of the state apparatus, I saw other forms of community that took care of people. For example, when I arrived at the rebel areas and saw the bombing of Benghazi in Libya, I expected total chaos, but it turned out to be one of the most civilised places I have ever visited. A group of ‘scouts’ directed the traffic and voluntary workers organised themselves to collect rubbish. I saw a society that functioned without a central government,» she says.

Tarkowski continues to share from her time in Afghanistan. «I saw the same kind of civilian organisation in Afghanistan. The authorities have a weak position there, but the country functions nonetheless. Although people in Afghanistan have seen horrendous things, experienced war, and live in a dangerous country, I honestly experienced a form of human fellowship and support there that I rarely see in the West.»

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Walls of fear

In his newest documentary The Border Fence, Austrian director Nikolaus Geyrhalter once again depicts the European fear of «the Other». His film Abendland (2011) showed a collection of scenes portraying Europe at night, with strong emphasis on surveillance cameras and border fences which keeping outsiders out. In The Border Fence, zooms in the lens is focused on the Austrian–Italian border region Tyrol. In early 2016, Austrian politicians announced plans to build a fence at the Brenner Pass, in order to stop the illegal refugees coming from Italy. Tyrol can thus be viewed as a micro cosmos of the whole Europe as a whole, where different ideas and fears clash.

Protecting the paradise

The establishing of the Schengen Area and the abolishment of border controls was a revolutionary step for Europe. This was a decision that has liberated the European landscape from unneeded fences and walls. The border checkpoints have converted from control mechanisms to artifacts of the past. Travelling has become faster, more convenient, and more humanistic.

The Border Fence by Nikolaus Geyrhalter

However, the current refugee crisis has turned everything upside down. Hungary, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Slovenia, and several other states have suddenly started to build walls and restore border control. One of these fences was a fence designed to separate the Austrian–Italian border in the Alps. Geyrhalter’s camera patiently and precisely captures the Alpine landscape and its inhabitants. Different characters describe their current lifestyle as very good – almost perfect – yet there is a clear anxiety about a potential deterioration.

«Geyrhalter provides space for our own interpretation and doubt: what is real and what is imagined?»

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Low-budget distinction

Please!, Host

(Poftiti va rog, Gazda)

Serestély Szilárd/ Mircea Sorin Albutiu

Romania, 2018/Romania, 2017

If judged solely by coverage in European media, one would be forgiven for presuming Romania is considerably smaller both in size and population than its western neighbour Hungary. Anyone taking interest in current affairs will probably identify the autocratic Prime Minister of the latter, Viktor Orban, the Putinophile whose proudly illiberal policies and regular outbursts have made him one of the most recognisable, influential politicians in the continent’s central/eastern parts. But few outside Romania could probably put a name to the face of President Klaus Iohannis or PM Viorica Dancila.

Largely unknown

The latter’s relative obscurity is understandable as she only took office in January, assuming the position after street-protests about a proposed change to the corruption laws drove out Sorin Grindeanu who served less than six months in the hot-seat. Those demonstrations did make international headlines, but Romania has seldom penetrated the global consciousness since those heady days in December 1989 when long-standing Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was so suddenly and bloodily deposed.

«This year most domestic features at TIFF were tepidly received, but those venturing into the marginal areas found rewards

A likely factor: Romania so far has proven relatively immune to the populist wave that has engulfed much of Europe during the current decade, and whose progress the international news media charts meticulouly every day. But this is actually the seventh-largest EU state by population –19 million – and the ninth largest in area. On the former count it’s twice as big as Hungary for example, and size-wise it’s nearly three times as massive.

Film accolades

In terms of cinema, Romania – whose «New Wave» was identified by critics more than a decade ago – continues to pull its weight and then some. While Hungary did win the Golden Bear at Berlin last year with Ildikó Enyedi’s On Body And Soul, Romania scored twice in the last half-decade: Adina Pintilie’s Touch Me Not this February emulating 2013 laureate Calin Peter Netzer’s Child’s Pose. The century’s most acclaimed Romanian picture, Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, landed the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2007, an accolade which has so far eluded Hungary.

Touch Me Not by Adina Pintilie

Five years previously Mungiu nabbed his first major trophy when his debut Occident won the Transilvania Trophy at the inaugural Transilvania International Film Festival (TIFF) held in Cluj-Napoca. In the intervening 16 years Cluj has become Romania’s unofficial capital, and TIFF has likewise steadily emerged as one of the most vibrant film-related events in the ex-Eastern Bloc.

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How to help the Syrians?

No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria

Rania Abouzeid

Norton & Co. 2018

In war the dead are just numbers. In Syria they are not even that. Airstrikes are too relentless, too dangerous, the UN explained in 2013. Verifying sources is too complex a task and so rather than stopping the war it stopped counting the dead.

Analysts tracked 500,000 casualties. Others say there were more than double. Others say nothing, like Assad. They say the dead are mannequins.

«That’s what remains of war, in the end and forever: this feeling that it’s all random.»

Getting lost in the conflict

Australian journalist Rania Abouzeid has been reporting from Syria for all major newspapers. Being of Arab descent, she has blended in more and been able to go deeper than the rest of us. And like many of us, she has now tried to save from oblivion the Syrians she was impressed by the most, weaving their lives together into a book.

It’s quite strange to read each other’s works. To remember other Syrians who told us the same words – recurrent remarks, recurrent details – or even others we never wrote of. Others who vanished instead. That’s what remains of war, in the end and forever: this feeling that it’s all random. Getting killed or not. Getting your story told or being forgotten. This feeling that history keeps going either way, without you.

That you are actually insignificant.

You think you have friends, relatives. Certainties. Sometimes it all crumbles, sometimes it doesn’t – it’s random. But it’s just an illusion anyway. The reality of life is that you are simply alone. And actually that is what there’s no turning back from. Ever.

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Catastrophe in the face of beauty

Daily, hundreds of species are disappearing from this planet. At an equally impressive speed, complex, marginalised languages and civilisations get lost. Cultures lose their living spaces. The dominant, globalised, and uniform culture barely takes notice of these disappearances. The ongoing downfall of cultures isn’t a message for big media.

Jure Breceljnik and Rozle Bregar travelled far north, to eastern Greenland, to meet the last few active Inuit hunters. Their daily life has changed dramatically in the last decade. The documentary sets out to record this decay against overwhelmingly beautiful landscapes, thanks to the cinematographic brilliance of Rozle Bregar and Wesley Johnson and the camera work of Miha Avgustin. These images seem to function as the last outcry of a seemingly still-intact nature, which asks for its own right to survival.

Desperate and futureless

Behind this enchanting surface hide the harsh and desperate living conditions of the «last ice hunters». The younger ones especially are the losers in global developments. Having lost their roots, they drift away into alcohol consumption or often straight to suicide, which reaches a European statistical high in these regions.

«The younger ones drift away into alcohol consumption or often straight to suicide.»

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Opposite views of the resource crisis

The Wizard and the Prophet: Two remarkable scientists and their dueling visions to shape tomorrow’s world

Charles C. Mann

Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2018

Science journalist and author Charles C. Mann is known for his books 1491 and 1493 about America before and after Columbus – described as a culturally engendered ecological transformation, full of unexpected connections. The mix of parasitology, demography, ecology and agronomy reappears in his new book, which is about the future as much as it is about the past.

«We all live within the absolute limitations of nature and must behave accordingly.»

Mann takes part in his own story and draws on his journalistic experience around the world, where agriculture and ecology have been central. He starts his book with a meeting with the legendary microbiologist Lynn Margulis, whom he met in his hometown as a youngster, and later meets as a lecturer at the university. With a distanced and scientific perspective on the situation of mankind, balanced, perhaps, by a warm admiration for microbiota, she showed her students a time-lapse film of bacteria multiplying around a piece of nutrition. Soon their number would accelerate, push to the edge of the petri dish, consume their last nutrition – and die. For Margulis the likeness to the situation of mankind was more than a loose analogy, but rather an undeniable consequence of the same laws of nature.

Prophetic sentinels

That we all live within the absolute limitations of nature and must behave accordingly is the central message of the «prophet» in Mann’s book, William Vogt, who in 1948 published his Road to Survival. Vogt’s warnings were followed by disquieting pamphlets and unapologetic admonitions, such as Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet, Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb and The Club of Rome’s The Limits To Growth.

Mann takes care to describe Vogt’s path from a hobby ornithologist to a famous environmentalist, and how he explored the subtle connections of ecology revealing the vulnerability of life. In Vogt’s youth, efforts to eradicate malaria led to marshes being drained all over the USA, including on his beloved Long Island, with fatal consequences

William Vogt in 1950

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Kids of Neoliberalism

Millennials and the moments that made Us: A Cultural History of the U.S. from 1982-Present

Shaun Scott

Zero Books, 2018

Shaun Scott’s Millennials and the Moments That Made Us: A Cultural History of the U.S. from 1982-Present portraits Millennials or «Generation Y». Born sometime between 1982 and 2000, the members of this generation are characterised as being tech savvy, slow to adulthood, and easier to accept racial, ethnic and sexual diversity. The author describes the «Millennial condition» by using puzzle-like fragments of his personal biography, neoliberal economics, politics, pop culture, sports, and video games. Even if written about the USA, the book can be easily understood by Europeans, as most of us live in the same cultural and economic zone, apart from the fact that the social system in Europe is not yet totally destroyed.

Raised by TV and video games

I, the author of this review, am a Millennial, only I was not born in the USA but in the Soviet Union, which collapsed when I was seven years old. In the beginning we, the kids from the other side of the wall, wanted it all – MTV, sneakers, Barbies and colourful ice cream. Time passed and we started to be critical of the superficial consumer bubble the American culture was hypnotising us with. Fifteen years ago I visited the US for the first time and I still remember a conversation with a middle-class mom who couldn’t stop speaking about all the work she does to pay for her children’s private school. The sad thing was this mom seldom saw the children she was so overly concerned about. Her children, like the ones Shaun Scott describes in his book, were raised by surrogate parents: television and video games. The times when one working parent could support the household were over and commercial pop culture did everything to fill the gap.

Politics are Pop

However, it was not only music, films and video games that served as entertainers. The politicians participated in the same game. In the 90s, when millions of Millennials were hitting puberty, president Bill Clinton’s sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky became an entertaining reality show. Making jokes about blowjobs became a part of a youngsters everyday agenda.

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The diaspora as a vantage point to modern China

Diaspora’s Homeland: Modern China in the Age of Migration

Shelly Chan

Duke University Press, 2018

The scale of Chinese exodus from the 1840s to the 1940s has been surpassed only by European emigration to the Americas and beyond, and later by mass migration from India. By stating this fact, Shelly Chan in her new book Diaspora’s Homeland reminds us of two important points: That Europe was once the main sending region rather than destination, and that Chinese circulations have spanned the world for centuries. More than 20 million people left China from the mid 19th century to the mid 20th, and this diaspora can, in Chan’s view, serve as a vantage point for understanding the making of modern China.

«All eyes are increasingly on China and its place and role in the global order.»

As all eyes are increasingly on China and its place and role in the global order, Chan’s analysis of historical migration dynamics as a window to the present-day contesting of US hegemony is a timely and thought-provoking enterprise. Her claim is that «diaspora moments» have played a key role in the development of, among other things, sovereignty and diplomacy, debates over tradition and modernity, and struggles between socialism and capitalism in China.

Flows of people and things

Chinese Immigrants to the US

Diaspora moments are for Chan «momentous encounters» in which migrations or migrants produced unexpected reverberations in the nation state of origin. Among these moments she looks at «coolie» migration from China to the Americas in the late 19th century and how it pulled Qing China into Western social, political, and economic geography; at how national identity in Republican China was – not only, but also – produced through the power of Chinese merchants in Southeast Asia; how Confucianism was reinterpreted through migrant experiences of being colonial subjects in the British empire; at the contradictions and conflicts that emerged when a socialist mode of production was confronted with households split between home and abroad, as well as how diaspora returns were simultaneously encouraged and seen as potentially embodying a «capitalist threat».

In revisiting these diaspora moments as keys to the emergence of the present national narrations and political economy of mainland China, Chan follows and expands a tradition of transnational inquiries. Diaspora’s Homeland presents new insights, but also places itself in conversation with related publications such as Wen-Chin Chang and Eric Tagliacozzo’s Chinese Circulations (2011), an anthology about Chinese economy seen through flows of capital and commodities in Southeast Asia.

Temporary absence

In Chinese the word huaqiao was historically used to refer to Chinese diaspora, and according to Chan it literally means «Chinese who are temporarily located». The term thus served to discursively create a permanent national homeland by emphasising migrants’ temporal absence from it, while at the same time indicating that the absence was forced or unwilling. Not until the 19th century was it officially recognised that migration could lead to settlement in another place.

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The killing soya mafia – Argentina’s lost soul

A Journey to the Fumigated Towns

(Viaje a Los Pueblo Fumigados)

Fernando E. Solanas

Cinesur

Argentina 2018, 96min

Solanas’ documentary, presented at the 2018 Berlinale, starts with images of an illegal deforestation in the province of Salta located in northern Argentina. As a native forest, this terrain is protected. But thousands of hectares of centenarian wood were felled in only a few weeks, mainly for soya bean cultivation.

Solanas structures his film in ten chapters, offering lucidity and rhythmic elegance. Using his own camera and a second camera filming his actions, meetings and dialogues, he creates a natural transparency, which hides nothing on the set.

Mass poisoning by fumigation

He jumps right into the centre of the catastrophe. Solanas meets the ingenious Wichí population, the original owners of the land, who now live behind fences. Others were forced to migrate and settle in nearby villages to avoid the bombardment of agrotoxins sprayed from airplanes. The main source of their food has been destroyed. Facing hunger and all kinds of illnesses caused by fumigation, they are condemned to disappear. Their children have never consulted a doctor or seen a teacher. Their survival – with no access to drinking water, shoes and other essential materials – is threatened. Their requests for help from the Argentinean government and the deed holders have remained unanswered.

Helplessness is also the overwhelming feeling shared by a school teacher, who breaks down in tears in front of Solanas’ camera. She had observed the periodical return of the fumigating airplanes, spraying their deathly cargo over the soya fields just beside the school area, sometimes right over it. In these villages surrounded by soya bean plantations, the entire population is affected by a growing number of respiratory and blood illnesses, including cancer. A significant change in neonatal pathology has been observed in the last 10 years, including terribly mutated miscarriages or deformed babies, which is intrinsically linked to the increasing application of agrotoxins, as paediatrician Dr Ávila Vázquez and his team have witnessed.

«Solanas structures his film in ten chapters, offering lucidity and rhythmic elegance.»

Argentina has lost its soul, remarked an eco-agriculture expert. Millions of hectares of soya production are occupying the most fertile lands. Its consequence is not only the destruction of the ecosystem and biodiversity, but also the depopulation of the territory. A shocking 200,000 agricultural plantations and 700,000 jobs, including those of indigenous farmers, disappeared in Argentina in the 1990s. Abandoned villages, schools and country houses mark the landscapes. No insects, fauna or butterflies, not even birds can survive here anymore. The beekeeping culture has been totally extinguished.

Big business

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