I met Brandon Jourdan at a convergence space in London the day before the March 26th protests against public spending cuts. He is an award-winning independent filmmaker, journalist and writer currently based in the Netherlands, where he is working on a film about reactions to the financial crisis. After the march, we met up again to talk about his current film project.
STIR: Why are you in the UK?
BRANDON JOURDAN: I came here because there was a very large protest march that I wanted to cover. On March 26th, 500,000 people marched to protest government austerity measures. I’ve been particularly following this story and related stories about the financial crisis since it began. I have worked in a few different places such as New York City, where I covered the housing crisis and the campaigns that working class people had launched. I also did some work in California covering the occupations that had occurred because of the fee increases. Also, earlier in the year I was in Greece during the eighth general strike since the beginning of the financial crisis. Greece is now experiencing a very nasty structural adjustment that is being pushed by the IMF, European Union and the Central Bank. London was the next stop on the way.
I want to show how people are being affected by these austerity measures and more importantly how they are responding and fighting back. I’m also trying to tie this all together in a larger film project that will show that this financial crisis is not anything new and that crises are part of capitalism, as are the responses.
S: At the recent student protests a placard read ‘Apathy is dead’. Do you think the current anti-cuts campaigns are seriously challenging the idea that democracy should be left to the experts; and are these examples of what Dan Hind has called ‘the return of the public’?
BJ: Well, my political approach is that people should have control of their lives and they shouldn’t leave any decisions to representatives, at all. The sort of responses that are happening at the moment show that humanity is not a passive spectator. It shows the human potential and the fact that humans are capable of fighting for justice and fighting for themselves. I think that right now power is starting to notice this. And even though there haven’t been any concessions, the new security apparatus such as the Delta Police in Greece are, in a way, a little nod to the movement that says ‘we realise you have power and we are frightened’.
S: How are the campaigners and activists in your films making connections between the financial crisis in 2008 and the planned public service cuts now?
BJ: The connections that my films make show that while the banks say the crisis is over, it is only over for them. They have created wealth for themselves through quantitative easing (QE) to ensure they do not lose profits. Of course, at the end quarter of last year it was record profits for the private sector. Meanwhile, you had a huge increase in unemployment in Greece and elsewhere. This is something that the films are trying to point out, to show that these cuts to public spending are actually harmful to capitalism itself. If you take a country like Greece, where 70% of the GDP is based on consumer spending, and you cut social safety nets then they will not have any money to spend. It is the same in the United States, where a large amount of the GDP is based on consumer spending, and you have libertarian conservatives who are cutting off people’s benefits. They are going to start to notice this when businesses begin to go under and it leads to a worse economic situation. The clear example of this is Greece. To go back to Greece’s GDP and the way in which it has been affected by the austerity measures, if you look back to 2007/2008, the unemployment rate at the start of the crisis was 8% and a year later after the austerity measures were introduced, the unemployment rate was a little over 14% and amongst young people it was 35%. The people that you see in the streets rioting are under the age of 35 and they feel like they have no future. So, these are the connections that I am trying to portray in the films.
From my political point of view — I am a radical — I do not just want a social welfare state; I want people to recognise that these crises happen throughout the history of capitalism, and that we need to move beyond this and find a more just way of organising ourselves in society and not leave it up to an elite who are wrecking our lives every few years. It is always the ones at the bottom who are affected; and actually, these are the majority of people.
S: Last year, John Holloway spoke of the community gardens that had appeared in Greece after the financial crisis and he used them as examples of the cracks in capitalism that were detached from the interests of the market. In your recent experience of Greece and the UK, do you think there has been a shift from only calling state power and the market into question to actually embodying the alternative? A move from the riot to the revolution?
BJ: I will answer this question in two parts. First, I will talk about a few specific ways in which people are responding and creating a different way of living, and secondly, I will a do a brief critique of the “autonomous zone”. For the first part, I would like to bring attention to a few things that have happened — some of the examples from Greece are amazing. One famous neighbourhood in Greece, Exarcheia, has become a zone where there are police and military at the entrance who do not go in unless they are in a group. There you find community gardens and lots of social spaces and squats. It is very impressive.
Another thing that is happening in Greece right now is the I Won’t Pay Movement, which is almost a gift economy. In 2007, the highways were privatized and this was the start of structural adjustment and a lot of tolls were introduced throughout the country. What happened is, people started demonstrating and independently lifting up the tolls and this has now spread. In public transport, people have been sabotaging the validation machine and actively encouraging people not to pay for public transport. Workers in public transport are also refusing pay; and this has spread into hospitals where doctors will not take the minimum five euros, providing free healthcare. These examples to me are very inspiring and show the potential for something very different to the social relationships we have here, and the way in which our economic system functions.
My critique of “autonomous zones” is that in reality there is no such thing as an autonomous zone within the global economic system that we have, meaning that you see these temporary places and examples like Oaxaca in 2006, but what happens if they are crushed? You do not really change social relationships; and who is this person or individual outside of capitalism? So my critique of just purely seeing these places as ‘the alternative’ is meaningless if it is not part of an international movement. The old saying that ‘Those who make revolutions in halves, dig their own graves’ is true. You can get a little thing happening and then the military will move in.
Let’s look at North Africa right now. My belief is that the US is not doing an intervention in Bahrain and other places where they actually support the governments. But Libya is easy because they have had a hot-and-cold relationship with Gaddafi for years — they liked him at first and then he became an enemy. My feeling is that they are trying to get a foot in the door so they can manage the social upheaval that is happening in North Africa. So, this is why I say that there is no truly autonomous zone and that no-one is free until we are all free.
S: One of the strategies of the mainstream media has been to exclude and erase the true victims of the public spending cuts. As we saw in the reporting over the weekend, it did not feature a discontented public or people working in the care industries, nor teachers and nurses, and it certainly did not feature the people who lose out from the loss of such workers. In your report you did the opposite of this. You created a space and allowed voices from teachers from deprived boroughs like Hackney in East London. In your films, is this what you are trying to do — counter this narrative by including as many voices as possible?
BJ: The thing about so-called Democracy, the way it functions and the reason it has lasted for so long without people being upset and seeing what a farce it is, is that the corporations control the means of production and information production. So, when you go to vote in elections, the decision has already been made. Take the last US elections where Obama was elected — the PR agencies won and were able to use the media. Normal people have never been given the microphone and allowed to speak (or very rarely — there are the exceptions of Paul Mason here and Colin Moynihan in the United States).
This is something that I try to do in my own work. This comes from my personal experience of my father dying from Mesothelioma. He was an insulation worker for 34 years. When he died, I learned that asbestos companies destroyed scientific evidence and paid off doctors. And it wasn’t that only a small percentage of the people who worked in my father’s job were getting sick and getting cancer. You were 300% more likely to get gastrointestinal cancer and ten times more likely to get lung cancer than someone who smokes a pack a day. Learning from that, my own experience has been to share stories like mine and my family’s to let people know that they are not alone. It is really powerful when you realise that you are not an isolated individual and you are part of a collective — a global group of people who have been oppressed — and that we can fight back and we can win. The one thing that I want to do in my films is not just tell everyone that everything is terrible, they know its bad, it’s to give them hope. To hold the microphone up to them so they can say what has happened to them, so that people in other places know that we are a collective force and history belongs to us. We are something to be reckoned with and power is now getting a dose of its own medicine.
Brandon Jourdan has contributed to the NY Times, CNN, Babelgum, Reuters, Deep Dish TV, Democracy Now!, the Independent Media Center, Now with Bill Moyers, Foreign Exchange, and Free Speech Television. You can see more of his work on his blog.