Monday, October 27, 2008

obscure visual signs: do not chop off the tram seat you're sitting on

Zurich provided me with some very interesting signs, more to follow

Notes from Zurich

It wasn’t a good start. I was late for a job interview and we were still circling above the airport. “There has been an… incident in Zurich airport ” said the captain, clearing his throat “we will be landing 40 minutes late”. Later as we approached I could see the crashed aircraft on the ground, a few metres from the runway, and the emergency vehicles parked around it, but no special motion: the story was over, and as far as I could judge, it ended badly. To compensate passengers for the delay, the aircrew walked smiling through the plane offering an extra round of little Swiss milk chocolate. I declined.


On the guesthouse website the neighbourhood was described as "young and unconventional", so I guessed streetwalkers and gentrification, and I was not wrong. Arriving at night I noticed the cozy designer bars, as well as the red-light parlour just opposite the hotel. In the morning, searching for an squatted art gallery called “the massage parlour”, a guy approached me on the street corner. “Kokain?” he said bluntly. I was never offered cocaine on the street. I didn’t think I look the type. To begin with, I can’t afford it. But maybe in Switzerland it’s different.


In the municipal tourist brochure I find pages and pages of adverts for prostitutes, "non-professionals, absolutely beautiful ... exciting modes and very young Callgirls". I am surprised, but then I think again. Calvinist societies seem to be liberal when it comes to sexwork: this should not be mistaken with broad-mindedness or progressiveness. The legalisation of the sex trade seems symptomatic of societies obsessed with regulation and control, it allows the state more efficient taxation and supervision. Especially where every citizen is an honorary policewoman. – Later on, the guesthouse owner, a widely-travelled arty character in her 50s, says to me of the red-light parlour across the road: prostitution is not a problem, but then you always worry, you can never be sure: are they legal here?


Like in many other places in Europe, everybody is complaining about the immigrants, taking the jobs, bringing wages down, driving the cost of living up. In Switzerland they’re talking not about Polish or African people, but Germans. It’s been a few years that Switzerland joined the Shengen treaty, and now labour is crossing the border almost freely. Switzerland resisted this for many years, but eventually, the idol of capital demands its sacrifices.


The traditional, conservative image of Switzerland is important for its brand image. But the events of this month showed that this is perhaps no more than an image. The major Swiss banks UBS and Credit Suisse have sunk together with the global ship, no safer than anywhere else. The bubble did not fail to visit Zurich. Swiss exposure to East European “emerging” economies is estimated at 50% of the country’s GDP. In plainspeak: Swiss banks gave loans to companies in Hungary, Ukraine and other countries, equal to half of Switzerland economy. This appears now as quite stupid.

But in praise of Swiss citizens it has to be said that they are demonstrating against this carnival. In Zurich I saw a demonstration against the UBS bailout (the bank received some $6 billion from the government). Where are these demonstrations in the rest of the world? How is it that millions of people are letting governments gamble away with their money with such ease?

The events of the past month have unfolded so quickly that I assume people did not have yet time to digest whatever is happening. And the numbers sound so great that they stop meaning anything. But they mean a lot. Up to 4 trillion dollars were raised within a couple of weeks to save the banks. What happened to fiscal restraint? I guess it wasn’t that important after all. Was the money there all along? Then why didn’t they use it for education, health, poverty reduction, the environment?

This crisis is sure enough to bring real misery to billions, and I dread to think of the implications of a sudden banking collapse. A global run on the banks: it could still happen. So governments try to save the banks, fine, but what about changing the rules? What about some changes in personell? What about claiming something in return? For the moment, the rules are not changed: the same leaders, the same bankers, the same music, spend and loan. In the UK, the same banks that have been saved by taxpayers are now forcing the same taxpayers to sell their homes to pay back £1,000 loans.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

In Zurich

Earlier this evening I watched people in the Supermarket. They were making choices, silently, observing their options, contemplating slowly, comparing prices and packaging. But this was the wine section, or the meat. It was the chocoloate section.

I brought dahl and rice with me on the plane and cooked dinner in the guesthouse: a pete-style dahl, with tomatoes and coconut cream, and then I added this strange UFO-style swiss orange squash. I have a kitchen here and even cumin and ground corriander are provided .

For evening entertainment, I'm reading the automatic earth and I don't know what to think. These guys think we're over: that this is the big one. Last drinks for Capitalism. It looks like they know a thing or two on how the business work. The basic line is: this is a fictional economy, and all novels have an ending.

This is not unfamiliar stuff. You know: the contradiction of exponential growth in a finite world. The fiction of value - you know, the credit card in your wallet? it's plastic. - I knew a day of reckoning will come, when people realize, it's just plastic, and paper - it's worthless, meaningless. How long can this monopopy game continue? well, as long as we all believe in it, it will, and until we run of the last jungle spot to build a hotel on. I was hoping we still have a while to go before we reach these points, even with peak oil and all that. But the guys on the automatic earth think we're nearly there. Soon we'll reachthe no-return point when the system stops believing its bedtime stories.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

3 special poridge haikus for the financial meltdown

solace, solace, so
staring into the abyss
stirring, round and round

+ + +

Not liquidity
tahini is the answer
for morning panics

+ + +

as screens go bright red
and bankers choke on croissons
go long on rolled oats