Monday, October 27, 2008

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.

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