From under the linoleum
Old newspapers show Mussolini's imperialism looked a lot like today's

I sat on the floor and picked through the tragedy of the country we now call Ethiopia laid out on the yellowing pages. It was eerily reminiscent of the current Iraq adventure.

A tale for our times
The December 1934 assassination of Sergei Kirov

Seventy years on, the killing of Sergei Kirov casts an eerie light on the events of 11 September 2001, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the “war on Terror” and the state-sponsored hysteria surrounding the shadowy figures of Osama bin Ladin and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Ninety-three years of bombing the Arabs
It was the Italians, hell-bent on acquiring an African empire, who got the ball rolling. In 1911 the Libyan Arab tribes opposed an Italian invasion. Their civilians were the first people in the world to be bombed from the air.

Dispossessed all over again
After spending nearly two months in the West Bank the pull towards my village was growing stronger, especially after being detained twice and threatened with deportation … an Australian Palestinian returns to her ancestral home.

The tragic inevitability of a forlorn hope
Australia slides further into the Iraq quagmire
Cabinet documents recently released under the 50-year rule show that, in 1954, Liberal (conservative) Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, and key figures in his Cabinet were extremely gloomy about the prospects for success in an American war against nationalists in Indochina. But eventually they went to the Vietnam War anyway.

Bombing King David
One man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist

Some historians date the beginning of modern terrorism from the 1946 bombing by Zionist terrorists of the British military HQ in Jerusalem.

Don’t loiter near the exit
Military debacle and economic decline haunt the Bush regime

When I was just a young possum in the school cadet corps there was a hoary old war story that we all knew. It was almost certainly apocryphal, but it ruefully expressed a nasty historic truth about the US role in the demise of the British Empire.

 


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The slaughter of the bulls is nigh

25 July 1998

It must have been ten-thirty on Friday night when the doorbell rang. Normally, it would just be a joke by a bunch of drunken currency dealers from the merchant bank taking a short-cut through the lane, or maybe Joadja, who had mislaid her keys, but there was a short ring, two long rings and a short ring so I knew who it would be.

I walked down the stairs and let Old Possum in. He measured his tread up the stairs with a careful pace.

I extracted a six-pack of cider from the fridge and motioned him to the comfortable chair. "So how are you, old timer?", I asked, twisting the top off a couple of bottles. There was a chuff of liberated gas and tiny bubbles began to rise from the bottom, sparkling in the light of the desk lamp.

"Feel pretty good now", he said, reaching out a grizzled arthritic paw. He looked pretty much the same as the last time he had visited, which was probably a year before. He carried on his ears the scars of many fights and big chunks were missing from his pelt. His prescription sunglasses were old and scratched and one lens was cracked.

"Still at the same place?" I asked.

"Had to move again, but I fell on my feet this time. Found a nice sunny garden shed in one of those Federation houses down by the park. They have an apricot tree and an old China pear in the back yard. The library is just around the corner and there are no dogs."

"And the people?"

"Really nice dinks. He's some sort of functionary with the Nature Conservation Council and she's a high-powered lawyer, but awfully sweet." He took a long swig from the bottle. "He even gave me a hand to move my books around. This place will see me out, I think".

There was a long companionable silence. Raucous laughter drifted up from the pub on Sydney Street.

"I sense the end is coming fast", he said quietly.

"Nonsense ... you'll see us all out", I muttered.

"No, I mean the post-war boom. I have seen all these things before, in 1929", he replied. "This is madness now on the stock market. Millions of small investors are playing the market. Investment trusts and superannuation funds are playing the market on behalf of millions more. Millions will be ruined. A great slaughter of the bulls is nigh. It will be worse than the last time".

"But they keep saying the economic fundamentals are sound", I said, "The American politicians say it all the time. Peter Costello says it every other day. Is that just the big lie technique?"

"No, they really are mystified. They really do believe the fundamentals are sound. All the things they've wanted for years are there: nearly zero inflation; very low interest rates; tariffs low and falling; maximum competition; vast sums of money available for investment; maximum international mobility of capital; government regulation has nearly been done away with ... and now they have this haunting feeling that doom is upon them and the bull market is going to collapse ... that it's just looking for an excuse. It's almost a law of nature: the market inevitably collapses when all the fundamentals are sound."

"Well there certainly are eerie parallels. Listen to what I found the other day", I said, picking up a copy of The Day The Bubble Burst.* I flicked through my battered copy till I found the place.

"They're writing about 1929, a month or two before the Wall Street crash and they say: '... Australia was being governed by a coalition government, and the country was in the grip of a growing economic crisis; there had already been a serious slump in exports, the coal industry was in trouble, the price of both wheat and wool was falling while unemployment was rising. The stock market, behaving erratically, accurately reflected the situation', and this: 'In the election due later in the year, there was little doubt Australia would follow Britain's lead and elect a Labour Government ...'".

Old possum nodded, sipped his cider, and spun a bottletop on its edge, "What was happening was that as the economy faltered in country after country, money flowed from all over the world into Wall Street, looking for a safe haven, looking to make a quick killing on the market, either by speculating in blue-chip stocks or as loans to stock market speculators on the call money market. I know, I saw it, I was there. The conditions were very like today", he said.

"This relentless influx of capital drove the blue chip stocks up and up. They had long since passed the point where anybody was buying them in the hope of earning a meaningful income from dividends. Dividends meant nothing in relation to the purchase price. Everybody was counting on selling out at the top, cashing-up and getting out. Everybody thought they were going to be very clever".

"And Japan was in the grip of a terrific crisis in '29", I said, "They had a mountain of bad debt, and endless political scandals, and banks were failing one after the other, sounds very much like today ... but what in the hell were you doing in New York in '29?"

"I was just a kid -- sixteen and a half, I think; but I looked more than my age", he said. "I got a job on an old freighter running to San Francisco. I jumped ship there and got the train across to New York. Just wanted to see the world. I arrived in New York on a Friday, early in October, the fourth, if my recollection serves me.

"You know the characters of those days are almost forgotten now, except by those who cherish books and read history. When I got to New York everybody was talking about Roger Babson and Professor Irving Fisher of Yale.

"It was just a month after what they later called the Babson Break. Babson was a natural bear, a sort of Max Walsh of those days. He was an obscure financial advisor who had been predicting for two or three years that a crash was coming. Then one day he was the guest speaker at a financiers' luncheon -- it wasn't even in New York. He predicted again that a crash was coming and it was a slow day for news so they put a report of his speech on the financial news ticker and it was read by people in the brokerage offices all over America and the market suddenly nosedived. Hundreds of thousands of investors knew he was right and they all decided, simultaneously, it was time to get out."

He took another sip of his cider.

"Babson was flogged in the press of course. The champions of the endless boom made him a whipping boy. Professor Fisher – who was the Ross Gittins of the twenties -- said that the stockmarket had reached a permanent high plateau, and for a few days it recovered, but then it crashed again on the 24th of October -- Black Thursday. I'll never forget those scenes of panic and desperation. The bankers got together and poured in funds to try to rally the market but the following Tuesday it crashed again and kept going down, and it never recovered for a quarter of a century.

"It's all psychology now; all perception; all greed and guesswork. All the economists are trying to guess what all the other economists are thinking the market pundits are thinking that the other market pundits are thinking that the investors are thinking that all the other investors are guessing ... what the 'market' will do ... if you get my drift".

"So how do you reckon it will happen, what will trigger it?", I asked.

"No-one can tell you that. The capitalist economy is a huge, objective, independent thing -- ultimately uncontrollable and bigger than any central banker or any government or any political force. That is our problem. It is really an ecosystem which doesn't notice the needs of people, let alone animals or plants -- the natural ecosystem on which we all ultimately depend. But when the inevitable financial holocaust is near, mob psychology and chance determine its timing. It could be anything now: an assassination, the collapse of a single Japanese bank, a default, a devaluation, a small war, a sybiline pronouncement by Alan Greenspan.

"And this whole mad, erratic, system sits on top of the ecosystem of nature; parasitises it. It just doesn't see the natural world or its needs at all. It has no rational relationship to it. It will pollute and sterilise a river system or drive a species into extinction or destroy a benign productive industry as long as there's a buck in it for somebody. The driving force of the economy -- the objective need for profit -- acts automatically, relentlessly, constantly, unconsciously. The forces acting in defence of the ecosystem and the wellbeing of humans and and the rest of us are weak, secondary, terrorised, and they rely purely on a conscious will to do the right thing -- on the very weak forces of rationality and self restraint and decency and science."

He was right of course. I opened a couple more ciders and walked to the window. The rain was still drizzling down and the merchant bank building loomed against the sky like a huge malevolent spaceship in a cheap sci-fi flick. They were working late. A smattering of lights were still on and the neon McBANK sign glowed red through the mist. It had been a long day.

He was a good talker and he talked on and on ... of the days of panic and ruin ... of Wall Street packed shoulder to shoulder with distraught investors ... of bread lines and soup kitchens, hunger marches ... of desperate struggles against fascist demagogues ...

Joadja woke me when she came in around two-thirty. He had let himself out and shuffled off into the night. Old possums are like that.
________________
* Gordon Thomas & Max Morcan-Witts, The Day the Bubble Burst, Arrow Books, London, 1980.