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Archive for September, 2008

No truce with the Furies

September 30, 2008 3 comments

Labour PollsReading over the latest polling data, which puts Labour up three points on 32 percent, and the Conservatives down three on 41, I’ve taken to reading some Labour history. While it may be tempting to conclude that, upon getting a glance at some Labour and Conservative policies due to the party conference season, people prefer Labour, there are other points to be made. First of all, 32 percent of the voting intention share is still only a point above Labour’s second-lowest poll rating ever.

The Party may have come out of conference with a small bump in the polls thanks to a concerted effort on the part of its leadership, but this does not disguise numerous realities. On the ground, Labour activism is dissipating and exhausted. In areas that I know of across the country, the number of people turning out for campaign work is frighteningly low. Indeed, beyond electioneering there doesn’t seem to be much time for any genuine campaigns on local issues beyond populist school-or-hospital stuff.

Even if Labour is annihilated again at Westminster elections, that will not be the end of this particular story. Consideration needs to be given to what Labour is going to do next.

After Thatcher’s victory, despite the intervention of the Social Democratic split and the Falklands War, the Left of Labour utilized the elections on the 7th May 1981 and 6th May 1982 to pick up seats and use whatever power was handed to them to fight back against the stringent cuts of Thatcher’s government. Such a policy was hounded by silly decisions – at the apex of which stands for all time Derek Hatton’s race around Liverpool handing out redundancy notices.

That option will no longer be open to the Left. First of all, many of the cuts have already been carried through and in respect to local government services, central government can afford to tread water. Second, most of the activists who made a Labour swing to the left possible in different areas are now gone completely. Those muscles are atrophied. Thirdly a combination of devolution and centralisation has cut away many local government powers. Finally, Labour as a party doesn’t have the stomach for such a struggle.

What are we to do then should David Cameron get the majority he needs to become Prime Minister?

One Compass supporter with whom I’ve been conversing recently has suggested that extra-parliamentary action is and should ever remain out of Labour’s reach. By that standard, Labour reduces itself to impotence, surviving merely upon pointing out now and again the failures of the Conservatives in office. This is much what the Conservatives have been doing – somewhat hypocritically of course – since their chickens came home to roost back in the 1997 General Election.

However, I cannot reconcile such a decision even with the watered-down version of Clause IV. This government has not realised a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few. It has propagated cuts in wages, it has tip-toed around the very city executive bonuses which even the US Republicans are now speaking out against. It has allowed religions to set up their own little indoctrination pens on the site of former schools.

Can one even compare the record of this Labour government in power with the record of the Labour Party in its decade of defeat? Even the voice of the Labour leadership and the bought-and-paid-for careerists could be strident when it suited them on Black, Gay or Women’s Rights. The current climate, empty of real engagement on the part of average people, is itself corrupting. One only has to look at people like Andrew Dismore and Ken Livingstone to see that. A minimum wage can’t make up for the collapse of trade unionism.

It will require extra-Parliamentary strategies to change these things. It will require the renewal of the trade unions, the muscles of the working class. It will require a new political consciousness that can only be established by showing a clear route from where we are now to a victory which cannot but carry out a pre-ordained manifesto. In that, last the Labour Party has failed and will continue to fail while its manifesto is reliant upon bureaucrats, while its leadership is not accountable.

Anyone who believes that, with these things accomplished, we could then safely put ourselves once more on a path to parliamentary power is delusional. Labour electoral victory is but an excuse to put the breaks on for the leadership, lest excitement ruin their delicate plans. Dissatisfaction expressed through Conference would be ignored as it has been by every Labour Prime Minister. Eventually patience would run out and, disillusioned and scattered by the defeat of an anti-climax, people would look elsewhere.

All of that is of course from the point of view of one who takes to heart much of Trotsky’s rebuttal of Kautsky in “Terrorism and Communism”. In a superb passage Trotsky points out that in his era, parliaments – ill-equipped to represent people at the best of times – have categorically failed to live up to Kautsky’s posed choice: democracy or civil-war. The point of Soviets is not to merely reflect opinion, Soviets are the campaigning organisations of the working-class.

If one merely seeks to tread water, to follow the consensus – which, let it be clear, is not a matter of the free choice of a set number of free individuals all with suffrage – then Labour can live happily with a Tory government, and will outperform it at the next election or three elections later with whatever policy the context of the time allows. If the goal of Labour, as I think, is instead to work against consensus and to fight for the betterment of working people, then that is not a policy we can follow.

Instead we need to create organisation and a nexus of organisation in every locality, ranging from shop floors to the whole country and then beyond it. We need to be able to use these to halt Tory policy that may be detrimental to the people our Party was created to protect. Without the votes in Parliament, that will of necessity involve extra parliamentary activity. This is something we need to make peace with now – because on 32 percent, or 2 percent, we still have a mission to accomplish.

Categories: Labour Party News

Are Islamic fundamentalists reactionary?

September 30, 2008 2 comments

Islamic fundamentalist I was re-reading Slavoj Zizek’s book “In defence of lost causes” for some inspiration as to something I’m writing about Compass and I came across an interesting contention. Zizek mentioned that Islamic and Christian fundamentalists who blow up buildings. launch terrorist attacks or kill abortion doctors aren’t the real fundamentalists: on one level their violence might be motivated by an insecurity that their chosen path is not the correct one. Their violence is the outward expression of an inward fight against that insecurity.

Not being a psychoanalyst myself, or a member of the “Lacanian Left”, I’m unqualified to comment on the veracity of such an intriguing suggestion. However, that comment by Zizek came to mind when reading an article by Ghaffar Hussain which claimed that actually Islamic terrorists aren’t reactionary, they’re pro-active. Their agenda is, says Hussain, one of conquest and the annihilation of Western values. The establishment of the House of Islam across Europe and America.

In making his case, Hussain becomes symptomatic of the continuity and division between the unthinking Left and the unthinking Right on the question of terrorism. Hussain is focused upon the effects and aims of terrorism to the exclusion of all else; he is on the unthinking Right. The unthinking Left focuses to the exclusion of all else upon the social causes of terrorism. Since Hussain is trying to argue in favour of intervention, this lack in his argument takes on a special significance.

terrorists inspired by al-Qaida are not reactionary; rather they are pro-active and have a homegrown agenda, one not just of defence but one of conquest, destruction and subjugation.

In Islamist thought the west is viewed as the very embodiment of evil itself, the great satan to be opposed and fought at all costs in the struggle of good versus evil. The west is presented as one great unified body whose sole purpose is to destroy Islam and humiliate Muslims. According to the former global leader of the extremist Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, the late Abdul Qadeem Zalloom: “… when the discerning and sincere people say that the British are the head of kufr [unbelief] among all the other kufr states, they mean exactly that, for they are indeed the head of kufr and they are the arch-enemies of Islam. The Muslims should indeed harbour hatred for the British and a yearning for revenge over them …” (How the Khilafah was Destroyed, page 186)

The idealist elements of Ghaffar Hussain are very visible in these comments: the power of an idea to determine people irrespective of material considerations. Hussain doesn’t ask the question, “Why are people taken in by such rhetoric?” There is no analysis of historical or material currents which might predispose people to become Islamic fanatics, intent on harbouring a hatred for the British. This has a direct bearing on the contention that Islamic terrorists aren’t reactionary.

In fact when one looks closely, one sees a Middle-East transformed by the encroachment of global capital. Ordinary people often benefit from this – but the elite castes of places like Saudi Arabia benefit more. For all the convenience of television and other consumer goods made more readily available by globalisation, this comes at the expense of the collapse of intricate systems of social organisation. The consumer-driven transformation of Middle-Eastern cities is emblematic of this.

Add to this the manipulation of Middle-Eastern affairs by Europe and America and collective resentment finds a focus. Even were the latter to cease, which it can’t because of the crucial position of the Middle-East atop a large lake of oil, its historical reality would still provide a focus for enmity and resentment – unless such emotions could be redirected to where they properly belong, and channelled into hitherto weak or non-existent socially productive routes of opposition – trade unions, socialist parties.

The sort of people who lead the Islamist terrorist organisations are the same sorts who led the anarchist terrorists in Russia in the 1860s and 1870s – declassed intellectuals who lack the roots to perceive just how changes to the structure of society can be effected. Without the social weight necessary for real social change, they turn to ineffective attacks upon the visible signs of the structure itself. Islamists seem like the narodniks of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Yet even the Narodniks and other anarchists fed off the stirrings of an organised working class – including that beyond the borders of their own nation. The terrorists however can look out at other countries and see reflected only their own despair of change. Such is the decomposition of working class activism and self-organisation. Terrorism is entirely reactionary therefore, both in that it is the absence of a progressive programme, and also in that it is in response to European capitalism and the collapse of socialism.

Despite how clichéd this may sound, the expansion of McDonalds, Gap etc across the world places the new armies of European capitalism at the heart of the Middle-East. Though this cannot excuse fundamentalist Islam its crimes, nor does it suffice to merely dismiss it entirely and to instead impute the free choice of free individuals to associate with terrorists as final cause. Islamic terrorism is a reaction to the economic, political and military supremacy of the West.

Whether one maintains the view that this supremacy is, on balance, beneficial to the world when the alternatives are considered is irrelevant. That Hussain is choked in his analysis by his overall and pre-ordained conclusion that Westernisation is a Good Thing is the final ridicule of this article.

Categories: General Politics

Bloggers 4 Labour: Being used by the far right?

September 28, 2008 4 comments

I was just looking over the recent feed from “Bloggers 4 Labour” and happened to notice several worrying posts. Starting with the following blog, which is entitled “Neoconservative, moi?” there are some blogs which seem to be ridiculously right-wing, but are advertising on a site that is purpose built to accumulate Labour-sympathetic blogs. To give an example of just how right-wing the Neoconservative blog is, the title of one article is “The Democratic (Marxist) Party” accusing both Obama and Clinton of being “Marxian.”

Not to put to fine a point on it, but might this remind you of anything?

The blog’s “About” page admits of the following…

the webname – wien1938 is my web/forum name. It refers to the 2nd Panzer division as my first 1/72nd scale tank model was a Panther G belonging to that division.
The blog name, I rather like, since I’m a leftwinger by inclination [...]

I’m also a bit of a militarist. I’ve always loved the military and all things war related. I believe that Britain has criminally underfunded and misused the Armed Forces for far too long and that we should not be afraid of going to war [...]

I still admire Tony Blair, but I do think he was wrong on some things – like Global Warming (pseudo-marxist religion, v.dangerous). [...]

This is a blogger for Labour? Yikes. Initially I looked for some tongue in cheek irony about the whole thing. For example, the blog entitled Conservative and Unionist which has the web address toryparty.net is dedicated to attacking the Conservative Party – and its articles and About page make that clear. The more I read Neoconservative however, the more it looked like a fifteen year old’s mutterings about subjects far above their level of ready comprehension.

I know Andrew at B4L said that the latest harvest of Labour-supporting blogs from Total Politics has been “not great” but isn’t this beyond scraping the bottom of the barrel?!

Ding-dong, the witch is dead

September 25, 2008 3 comments

Ruth KellySo Ruth Kelly is resigning as a minister and political rumours have run rampant. Ruth Kelly resigned because she disagreed with government moves on fertility. Downing Street leaked Ruth Kelly’s resignation for the purposes of a ‘controlled explosion’ against Blairites. Ruth Kelly secretly attacked Gordon Brown’s speech. Ruth Kelly attacked and killed Gordon Brown. Okay so the last one isn’t true, but political rumours really are quite a wild affair, often unrelated to the truth of the matter.

How’s this for truth: so passes the Wicked Witch of the (Bolton) West. Almost certain to have her majority of 2,000-odd completely overturned at the next election, Labour will be well rid of one of the authoritarian Catholic fundamentalists from its ranks, people for whom the “R” word was never entirely absent when matters of science and progress conflicted with their closely held religious doctrines. One can see precisely why Ruth Kelly fitted in with Mr Blair.

One wonders if, as with Mr Blair, some months following Ruth Kelly’s eventual departure from Parliament itself, she will announce that she really is a member of Opus Dei. Still, it must be said that at least Kelly does not have quite such a preposterous stance as her former boss, who despite his Catholic convictions has no problem with New Age esoteric religious guff. Nevertheless, one wonders how such people find themselves in the Labour Party – or what that means about Labour itself.

Categories: Labour Party News

Roma locuta, causa finita

September 22, 2008 Leave a comment

DarlingAfter a day of reading around the subject of the Negation of the Negation in Engels’ Anti-Duhring and Marxist epistemology generally, on which a very succinct and enjoyable article by Barrows Dunham can be read at JSTOR, I indulged in my usual trawl of the blogs. Of late, I’ve been finding it hard to get excited about anything – or at least, I’ve got irritated or outrightly annoyed when listening or reading, only to find that my great wrath has dissipated when I come to write.

That has happened since this morning when I was listening to Radio 4. Multiple journalists were discussing the agreement of the press not to write about Prince Harry’s deployment to Afghanistan and the ramifications thereof. Most of them, especially Roger Alton, were keen to defend the act while denouncing it in principle; only one thought that the idea of keeping things from the public was already enshrined in media principles. It was left to Jon Snow to denounce it all as a sham.

Snow made the point that, as almost all the other participants in the round-table discussion had conceded, the MoD had made whether or not Harry went to Afghanistan contingent upon media agreement not to report the story until it broke of its own accord. Effectively this turned the whole matter into a public relations stunt, by the nature of the quid pro quo that the MoD offered (immediate silence for future great access), and the media was invited to participate or not. Editors chose to participate.

Some of the comments made by the representative the Sun sent in to the debate had me boiling over in wrath, that such dissembling cynicism could pass itself off as simple-minded patriotism. Yet those feelings have receded and, when coupled to some of the things I’ve picked up off Members Net tonight, just leave a trace of sadness.

The only thing to stir me from this stupor was Mike Ion’s latest blog post, which far from challenging the sadness merely confirms that in truth, Labour CLPs are as much to blame for the state of the Labour Party as the bumbling incompetence of Labour’s leadership. Truth be told, if Labour really wanted to elect candidates of socialist disposition, it wouldn’t be hard to find them and put them up for election. Whether or not they get elected would be irrelevant, if CLPs were more orientated to campaigning.

Ion’s article is entitled, “Labour conferences: old fashioned and outdated?” and it confirms for me the fundamentally supine nature of Labour CLPs. Someone who could write such banality was selected as a parliamentary candidate? Really? The key to understanding just how utterly bankrupt the post is (and it may seem strange to direct such venom to a mere blog post, but bear with me) its answer to its own question and its suggestion of possible solutions.

“One of the main reasons for reforming how, where and when conference is organised is what it ends up costing ordinary members – especially in terms of travel, accommodation and time.”[...]

1. Hold conference over a long weekend – this could assist in helping the party to reach out and reconnect with ordinary party members. [...]
2. Seek to make the conference more inter-active – fewer set-piece speeches and more question and answer sessions with Ministers, MPs and party officials.
3. Give all new members and members with 25+ years membership, the opportunity to attend conference at a substantially reduced cost.
4. Continue to hold conference in major cities across the UK and move away from the traditional seaside venues.”

All of this is striking on the basis of what it does not say (rendering it politically neutered) and on the basis of what it does (some of which proceeds from political self-neutering). For example, there is not criticism of conference as a complete waste of time on the basis that everything is already sewn up. There is criticism of conference for lasting a week – a criticism which only makes sense if you consider that people aren’t actually attending for any productive purpose. Yet that is not mentioned.

Ion’s commentary on making conference more interactive by provision of Q&A with ministers demonstrates a mastery of the Blairite tactic of talking about democracy without actually being democratic. Why do we need to ask ministers questions at all? Shouldn’t our time there be spent either in caucuses or voting on serious matters of party policy? Otherwise, what’s the point? Of course the effects of voting have largely been abolished and the unions render the rest rather pointless.

Any citizen has the capacity to ask a minister a question: we can merely ask our MP to submit a written question, which duly receives an answer and which can be picked up by the interested citizen. Moreover, are we really likely to get anything from ministers in Q&A that we wouldn’t get in a press release? Or will the answer advance us in any meaningful way? I don’t see how it can: as with PMQs it merely involves regurgitation of the accepted party line.

Conference is outdated, but not because of it is held during a working week. Conference has been held during a working week for a long time, and the union delegates prove that it doesn’t have any appreciable effect on working class attendance. The thousands of PR reps, smooth talking journos and professional types probably have more of an effect because they take away the impression that conference belongs to the Party members. Which it doesn’t, as the corporate practice of paying for stalls and dinners confirms.

This type of comment-piece from those who are seeking elected posts is not uncommon. It allows the appearance of intelligent critique, it creates the idea that this candidate might have some useful ideas. Don’t mistake me – some of Ion’s suggestions are useful. What is utterly criminal is that these pettifogging changes can even be talked about without discussing the much larger issue of conference not being able to represent the members of the Labour Party.

Yet it doesn’t say anything that might shock or annoy people, who might one day be called on to select the individual to run for parliamentary office. Labour Members’ Net is full of such commentary from would-be MPs, councillors and MEPs. The people who write it are the personification of ineffectuality, and we’ve already elected a lot more people just like this to political office. Don’t piss anyone off, don’t run to fast or walk too far. Moreover, that’s something we have only ourselves to thank.

Reconquest of conference is on the ‘to do’ list, but in the mean time the intermediate bodies of Labour members – branches, General Committees and CLPs – need to recapture the decisive, confrontational element of democracy. The question of party democracy is not just one of structural change – though that has a debilitating effect on a desire for a powerful internal democracy – it is also a case of collective self-belief. We must develop the mental resilience to jointly declare, “Roma locuta, causa finita.

If I can ‘believe’ in anything about Labour conference, I believe that.

Give us your poor, your tired, your huddled masses…you can keep the Christians though

September 21, 2008 Leave a comment

Whether old age or mere passing whim, I feel almost benevolent towards Christianity at the moment. I think in some part this is because, having escaped the vapid Christians and indoctrination attempts of my youth, I have met men of religious faith, mostly Anglican it must be said, whose views are consistent and educated, however much they may be diametrically opposed to my own. Don’t get me wrong, I still meet my fair share of Christian nutters but they are preoccupying me less and less recently.

In some measure this is due to the café culture of the southeast. One is a lot less likely to meet the pernicious evangelists of my youth. I would add that this is a good thing, except that here in a town filled with twenty thousand students, the eclectic faiths are much more common and are even more inane than the worst possible variant of Christianity. Sounding like a cross between a Dan Brown novel, piecemeal Zoroastrianism and a buffet version of Plato, they are the ultimate in individualist pretention.

Often I find Christians to be ill-informed and inconsistent in their viewpoints, but at least they make an attempt to bend their lives to their chosen moral code. With the heterogeneous mix of ‘faiths’ that exist around here, the views are basically constructed to fit the paranoiac fantasies and character quirks of the person doing the selecting. Historically ignorant, with no understanding of the sheer controversy of ideas such as “mind over matter”, this New Age bullshit should be stamped out.

Come the revolution and all that. Seriously though, I’m not a bloodthirsty Stalinist thought-policing type. I just have higher hopes of my contemporaries than the reality they achieve. Still, whatever I may be, at least I’m not using my website to denounce Harry Potter-creator J.K. Rowling for promoting witchcraft. Apparently Rowling is to be denounced for “undermining Christian belief” – and I thought bad writing was enough reason to dislike her.

One wonders, if we’re to refuse a £1m donation from J.K. Rowling on the grounds that she’s undermining Christian belief, what David at Methodist Preacher thinks of the atheists and Marxists in the Labour Party for whom religion in anathema? Are we to be refused membership because we identify with a materialist analysis that posits religion as a dangerous dopamine for the masses? It wouldn’t surprise me from a man who can approvingly quote John ‘multiculturalism has betrayed the English’ Sentamu.

Maybe I’m not feeling so benevolent after all.

Bad journalism and Labour’s future

September 21, 2008 1 comment

Labour conferenceIt seems that every time I pick up an article about the state of the Labour Party it is by a journalist who either doesn’t have a clue what he (or she) is talking about or who doesn’t care that the manner in which are describing the situation is just dishonest. The most recent example is an article by Martin Kettle over at Comment is Fatuous, about how Gordon has unleashed a “reversionary leftist mood” at Labour conference.

A much more spectacular example was last week’s (Thursday?) article in the Indy about a survey on Labourhome, thereafter taken to represent the mood of ‘Labour activists’ – which anyone familiar with Labourhome can tell you, it doesn’t, as Tom Watson MP outlines. John Harris is also at it, evidently so swept up by the Labour conference that he can really see John Denham as an embryonic leftie, should New Labour discard it’s excessive caution.

The world really does feel as though it has been turned upside down when Kettle can straightfacedly write the following:

Brown’s celebration of his interventionist actions in the financial crisis is designed to protect him from his challengers. But it has unleashed a torrent of old-time anti-capitalist rhetoric from the party in Manchester. There was a lot of it in the hall on Saturday, semi-sanctioned by the Labour leadership including Brown himself, and there was a deal more of it in last night’s Compass rally and at the union events on the fringes. And I think Brown is already worried – rightly – about what he has triggered. [...]

I think Brown has realised that he has let something out of the cage that he may not be able to control.

I have several problems with this. Where is the torrent of anti-capitalist rhetoric? Have we so conceded the field to TINA that our journalists now find ‘anti-capitalist rhetoric’ amid whatever scraps are thrown by Labour ministers to conference delegates? Any mention of ‘social justice’ or (gasp) ‘redistribution’, in the age of anaemic socialist movements, now refer to an ‘anti-capitalist’ agenda. It’s frankly embarrassing that supposedly educated people are so unknowledgeable about history as that.

Secondly, what has Brown loosed from the cage and how can he not control it? There are going to be no shocks at this Labour conference – for that reason a Labour MP has come right out to say that she’s not even going to bother attending. Whatever Diane Abbott has become since, she was part of the 1970s and 80s left insurgency as it gathered pace, spurred on by the betrayals of Wilson and Callaghan. The Labour Party of today has nothing remotely so well grounded as that.

From within Labour, Gordon will face no challenge before the election, unless someone who is himself or herself a dyed-in-the-wool New Labourite manages to get the Unions on board. From outwith, Clegg is busy turning his own party rightwards to avoid slaughter in the South and Cameron and the Tories aren’t likely to jump on the anti-capitalist bandwagon in any meaningful way. For all of these, populist flirtations are a fantasy to be dispensed with once power is achieved.

The activities of Compass aren’t governed by the Party bureaucracy, and I imagine that the speakers at the Compass events were interested in keeping their own left-wing credentials intact and so directed their rhetoric accordingly. This parliament has shown Compass up in a none-too-flattering light from the point of view of those on the Left. Even the Cruddas- and Trickett-juniors are liable to succumb before a New Labour willing to pander in the interests of populism.

At the root of all of this lies an ill considered distinction: there is a long distance between “saying” and “doing” anything remotely progressive. In the case of the union fringes, again there is a huge disparity between talk and action, as anyone who reads Marsha-Jane’s blog will know full well. Talk is cheap, and only last week UNISON shied away from joint action with the NUT, UCU and PCS, probably condemning the efforts of the other unions to outright defeat.

In all these respects, Kettle has totally lost the plot. The key indication is that once again the wilderness years of 1983-1997 are regurgitated as a caution against a swing to the left. Says Kettle:

“The party lost four successive general elections while it remained committed to high taxes and tough state controls over the economy. It began to win general elections when it rethought its positions”.

I’m so sick of this concept I could vomit. The underwriting contention is that the voters don’t want high taxes and tough state controls over the economy. Without conceding the point, even if we assume this to be true, such an assertion doesn’t explain the rise of Cameron’s Tories. They aren’t playing up tax cuts and the unleashing of the free market, in fact Osborne was just saying the other day that he’s going to put stability first.

Are the public now leaning in the opposite direction? Have state controls been removed too far and do the public believe that the Tories will reassert some regulations? Not bloody likely, but that is the logical conclusion of thinking in such narrow terms as Kettle. The situation is infinitely more complex, involving the media, the changes in day-to-day life, the changing nature of industrial and political organisation and so forth.

If Labour loses the next four elections with a New Labourite / Compassite leadership, you can bet your arse these people won’t be saying that they lost for demanding too loose controls of the economy, or too low taxes. Quite the opposite; seeing the declining fortunes of their own caste within the Party, New Labourites have flown in the face of all available evidence and demanded Labour go further right, as Seumas Milne relates:

“…former minister Denis MacShane denounced the “insatiable greed of the state” for “taking the people’s money”, declaring that tax reductions, targeted especially at the “indigenous” working class, should be paid for by “cutting spending”. Then Tony Blair’s ex-speechwriter Phil Collins piled in, calling on Labour to embrace economic liberalism and treat income tax with “disdain”. Finally, the former cabinet minister Alan Milburn gave tax cutting the full Blairite benediction at the weekend”.

Honestly, I don’t know what world journalists such as the writer of the Indy piece, John Harris or Martin Kettle are living in, but it’s certainly not the world inhabited by those people who prefer politics to personalities, and who would rather fight for the soul of Labour than flirt with the notion that Brownites and Blairites might be on the cusp of a change of heart. Bearing in mind the amount of pressure they’d previously faced – millions of people in protest – rumblings from the grassroots mean nothing.

I don’t for a moment doubt that the senior heirarchy of New Labour are considering their position. The Guardian’s recent polling shows some worrying indications (at least, worrying for New Labour – the rest of us will not be so distressed to see these people go):

James Purnell and John Hutton would have gone, along with senior Blairites Alan Milburn and Charles Clarke. Jacqui Smith, Ruth Kelly, John Denham, Des Browne, Geoff Hoon and Jack Straw are projected to lose their seats.

Surprise would be the least of my emotions should I hear of anyone who genuinely wants to keep Ruth Kelly around, and I doubt many of Labour’s grassroots would fret terribly about the remainder. They are, after all, some of the most reactionary, authoritarian types ever to grace a Labour cabinet. Stewards of the database state and enemies of welfare, one and all. We’ll lose nothing by their absence. It’s the dozens of other Labour MPs, some on the Left, who’ll also go that are the problem.

Yet the result of this will no doubt be that Cruddas and Trickett and their coterie find themselves in the shadow cabinet of David Miliband, whose new Prospect article is reported to be neatly critical of the current phase of free market economics. A few more nods in that direction and the union bureaucracy may find itself wooed, and Cruddas may yet find himself deputy leader of the party. Far from being pleased with this prospect, it will probably stand squarely in the path of change.

Compass, which Trickett and Cruddas and others can use as a shield against pressure from the Left, will provide political cover for a move towards New Labour’s political position. Gordon Brown’s ‘fightback’ manoeuvres on things like a push to universal nursery school care are likely to be appropriated as the populist springboard of a Labour Party in opposition. As a result, the leadership will change almost wholesale and policy will not have to change an inch.

One cannot imagine people like Ed Balls being ousted – and nor can one imagine that he will be entirely pleased with the notion of David Miliband being accorded precedence in getting his grubby hands on the leadership. However, with so many of the ‘faces’ in the cabinet having been decimated, Miliband is the genuinely more popular figure I think.

Things may come to depend on who is left in the PLP – which will not swing appreciably left, bearing in mind those who now sit in rock-solid seats such as Rhondda, Normanton and Makerfield. This too may very well ameliorate any tendency on the part of new faces in a Labour shadow cabinet, such as Cruddas, to push for a real swing leftwards, even if they naturally have that impulse – which I don’t necessarily dispute.

Meanwhile, the real work must go on at street level. The nature of the economic situation might very well push a lot of the union leadership towards a more combative posture, if a Conservative government pushes for cuts in wages or for the restructuring of departments to make people redundant or to take on more part-timers, who are less unionized and more liable to accept less pay and worse terms.

That will be our opportunity to begin pushing people towards unions, and to enlist them once there in the fight for internal union democracy. Similarly there must be a battle to create new forms of campaigning, tying in all the smaller socialist groups now that Labour activism is barely alive in half the country. Marching in step must be a fight to link up unions branches and Labour CLPs, to make each more effective.

Whilst Labour’s leaders aren’t helping matters, having power and doing nothing constructive with it, progress is always going to be more difficult – but even from the point of view of those outside the Labour Party, these would be favourable developments. It may take ten years to erase the memory of this Labour government, just as it has with Cameron’s Tories and Major’s government. Yet these are ten years where we can replay struggles we once lost, and this time hope to win them.

Birthday Blues: Labour’s slide

September 20, 2008 2 comments

SocialismToday is the one year anniversary of Though Cowards Flinch. It has been made what it is by the main contributors; myself, Jeff and Danny. As the main author of the site, I also feel that an invaluable contribution has been made to my mental well-being and ability to carry on writing articles like I do by the following blogs: Obsolete, Socialist Unity, Splintered Sunrise and Union Futures.

Also a must-mention are those blogs which have most provided me with ammunition over the last year: Newer Labour, Liberal Conspiracy and Harry’s Place.

It would be trite to say that a lot has happened in a year. I have come from the dying embers of John McDonnell’s leadership campaign, ignored in favour of the triumphal entry of Gordon Brown within the Great Gates of Kiev. A year later our blog is here to witness the fall and disintegration amidst the atmosphere of the surviving shards of a star gone supernova. When the light and noise have passed, we forgotten socialists will remain, crying into our beer; a lonely sound in the utter darkness.

Higher and higher soar the Conservative Party, placed on 52 percent approval ratings by a recent MORI poll. Far and wide, the frayed and worn materials that make up the liberal intelligentsia finally begin to part company with the Labour Party, after a seventy year run. Whether Sunny Hundal’s recent admission that he isn’t sure a Labour victory would be a good thing, or La Toynbee’s hollow professions of faith in that same victory, the signs are unmistakable. A Change is gonna come.

Day by day, nails are beaten into the coffin with the staccato regularity of an army marching over cobblestones. It doesn’t matter whether it is the theatre of Gordon Brown reduced to the sad act of pimping his own judgment amid the wreckage of the economy, or the shocking site for Labour supporters of these New Labour Anti-Christs attempting to transfigure themselves by donning the clothes of legendary heroes from Labour’s past. I have rarely been more sure that electoral collapse is inevitable.

Yet that will not stop the tramp of sorry feet around the country, over the months to come. The parliamentary candidate of whose campaign I have recently resumed management will speak to church-goers, campaign for the homeless, consult with local business about making the city carbon neutral, energize the local unions, and will pull out all the stops to see if we can’t take Canterbury away from the Tories even at their moment of national triumph.

A week is a long time in politics, so they say, and a year longer still. When the election will be announced I simply don’t know. All the plans laid for a snap campaign to coincide with the May 2009 county elections have been shattered beyond repair. A year from now we may have a Tory government – but a year from now our little corner of the web will be true to socialist form: though cowards flinch or traitors sneer, we’ll keep the red flag flying here.

Economics and the Left

September 20, 2008 1 comment

CapitalismStumbling and Mumbling accuses myself and some of the authors I’ve been taking to task as regards this obsession with ‘new ideas’ as being unable or unwilling to get to grips with economic realities. This is apparently shown by our fight over “new ideas” – or in my own case, and my defence of Marxist analysis of capitalism, old ideas. Instead of debating concrete economic realities, we’re obsessed with viewing things in conceptual terms. At least that is what I think Stumbling and Mumbling is driving at.

I think this is a fundamental misunderstanding of precisely what has been driving the discussion about ideas. Unity and I, in the blog posts linked to by S&M, were discussing the lack of new ideas and how relevant this was for modern politics. More specifically, I was challenging the implicit basis for many of Unity’s assertions that new ideas were necessary on the basis of the lessons of history. I was dissatisfied that empirical argument was lacking in substantiating this link.

None of this was especially related to the panic currently soaring through Wall Street and the financial sphere across the world. Indeed, if global capitalism was performing as it had been during the late 1990′s, it is not impossible that the same discussion would have arisen. Thus I think it highly unfair to use it as evidence that the Left is somehow afraid of engaging with economic issues directly, rather than through the abstract ideas which cover economic truths with social and political argumentation.

Following on from this point, S&M lays out some of his thoughts as to possible long term solutions to the problems of free market capitalism gone-rampant-gone-bust. If I’m to take up the mantle of economics, my first point must necessarily be that in the post linked to and others dealing with the subject, S&M portrays a profoundly Western tendency to downplay what exactly the economic crisis means for people. I want to pull at this thread for a moment and see what it unravels.

To begin with, let’s have a look at some of the language I’m referring to:

And I suspect the immediate material effects of the current troubles – less availablity of credit and an economic slowdown – will now be cured by the passage of time. The longer-lasting, deeper effect of this crisis is that it’s undermined capitalist ideology.

Or:

Instead, I suspect the biggest crisis might be an ideological one, not a material one – because the stories themore dogmatic defenders of free markets tell no longer seem  so plausible

The crisis is very much a material one, through and through. In relative terms, capitalism is not seeing its ideology challenged at all. Socialism, the only alternative narrative and the very ideology which united millions against the exploitation of capitalism, both as it completed the first round of globalisation in 1890s and as it receded in the inter-war years, is still prostrate. Outside of the tranquil storm-haven represented by the West, the material problems thrown up by this crisis are self-evident.

First of all, even in the West entire communities have been suffering as the towns created and made economical on the back of low building costs and the cheap availability of credit implode. Outside the West, we’ve seen food riots in Italy, Yemen, Egypt, Morocco, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, most of West Africa, Mozambique, Mexico, Haiti and, believe it or not, in one town in California where supermarket managers put a cap on the price of staple foods. As with energy prices and oil prices, these are related to the credit crunch.

With the beginnings of the collapse in the ill-considered lending and real-estate policies of the major credit institutions (fronted by the other banks they lent to), there began a trend to pull money out and invest it elsewhere. This has led to intense speculation in commodities futures, particularly food, energy and gold. Even the World Bank has published an estimate which reckons that 100 million people are on the verge of starvation.

It’s not likely to slow down yet either: with inflation well above the interest rates, pension funds, hedge funds and every investor and his mother will be jumping their investments from point to point, in search of ever higher returns. The rapidity of this process explains how the masssive price rises seemed to spring out of nowhere for anyone who hasn’t been watching the early unfolding of this in rising oil prices (as a hedge) and rather unconsidered (but economically justifiable) sub-prime lending policies.

Inevitably capitalism will recover over time; no crisis is insurmountable – but the price for this capital reorganisation are the lives of millions of people in the developing world, not to mention those on the bottom rung of Western society. So I’m not quite so willing as S&M to write the whole thing off as more ideological than material. State interventions, whether nationalisation, the intervention of the US Treasury to support the Fed – mirrored in Russia and elsewhere, or through Sovereign Wealth Funds, is not an ideological challenge to capitalism either.

It will ameliorate things: the US Congress is putting togetherr a plan that would see the worst risk assets bought out from the private market – in effect nationalising bad debts in an effort to refloat the credit market. Nevertheless, bearing in mind the colossal sums – seven hundred billion dollars in the US case – we’re referring to, this is in effect the last ditch effort of the central banks before a massive and lasting recession sets in (in the process massively hitting labour costs) and readjusts the whole market.

For the Left it is easy to make comparisons between Western governments bailing out their banks and failing to offer any commensurable assistance to the people who are being hit by this – and in so saying, we are absolutely correct. However are we going to reduce ourselves to calling for a new welfare state? That is not compatible with the current incarnation of capitalism, and it will not be delivered from on high. In fact to achieve it, the late 1970s and 1980s would have to be fought again – and we’d have to win.

Thus when S&M says such things as this…

If the state can spend billions bailing out banks, it can spend billions bailing out people too. If a big welfare state is good enough for capitalists, it’s good enough for workers. Standard arguments against welfare states – that they are expensive, dampen incentives and that people should stand on their own two feet – have been gravely undermined.

…I’m inclined to think that for all the accusations about a rudimentary grasp of economics on the part of the Left, perhaps Stumbling and Mumbling needs to concentrate a little more on political realities and the underpinning theories which explain those realities. I myself support the creation of a new welfare state – from the windfall tax on energy companies right the way up to full employment and free education. However this is not all that S&M is suggesting. We must apparently;

Recognize that markets have a role. The state cannot – and perhaps (pdf) should not – manage the economy to remove all fluctuations. What it should do is help protect people from the consequences of downturns.

Effectively this reduces the role of any working class movement to one of vigilance that the bourgeois state should remain forever the nurse maid of capitalism, picking up the toys it throws out the pram. Again, however, this is entirely Western-centric. There is never going to be a global economy which supports a global welfare state. Indeed the revenues of our governments are built upon (after a long chain) the surplus gained from the exploitation of the 2.8 billion people who work for $2 a day or less.

The overall effect of most of the rest of the proposed solutions smack of an unsustainable naivety in how things are more than likely to progress from this point. S&Ms view that the ostensible point of high salaries (to provide management skill) has been undermined ignores the reality that the CBI won’t care about the sophistic games of the Left in this respect. Nor does S&M actually manage to nail home his hoped-for point in respect of the many-figure bonuses of city bosses.

Without wishing to justify such salaries, for they are built on surpluses extracted via the systematic exploitation of labour, the point should be made that in the situation of these bosses, it’s entirely possible that no decision would have stopped what happened. Capitalism has an internal logic to it; after all not one but multiple fund managers made their jump from sub-prime lenders to commodities: it was for profit, and they fulfilled the purpose for which they were employed.

One of the core Marxist critiques of capitalism is that it is effectively an anarchic system of production – and no individual fund manager faced with such a decision would have decided differently. It is not necessary to postulate incompetence to arrive at the current economic imbroglio. There is also no evidence that, given a different ownership structure, when motivated by the same, inevitable goal – profit – a decision would have been made to stem the sub-prime lending or the jump into commodities which saw prices sky-rocket.

The only answer that I have ever been convinced by is that the entire underpinning motivation of the system needs to be completely eliminated. Industry needs to be put on a socialised footing and the democratisation of society needs to be pushed to its final conclusion. Profiteering does not result in the most efficient allocation of resources, it results in precisely the chaos we’ve seen unleashed on a systematic basis across the globe – chaos which has been well predicted years ago.

Tinkering with the system, whether it is dismissed as a short term (and S&M does the same as the Brown government in defining short-term as ‘bad’) solution or is a wider re-adjustment of the capitalism, will not be enough. Nor will it be sustained after the crisis is averted, because there will be no pressure to do so. Millions of people may be loosing money, but equally a very powerful few are gaining. Whether from golden handshakes or through whatever remunerative method, crisis is profitable.

Solutions internal to the capitalist system aren’t sufficient, and far from being said on a populist misunderstanding of economics, I say it though I read the Financial Times when I can. Perhaps when the bottom of the well of sovereign funds and bailouts are plumbed,  causing rapid reorganisation of state spending (i.e. cuts), more people will be liable to agree instead of dismissing the suffering of half the world’s population as more ‘ideological’ than ‘material’.

Categories: General Politics

Creationism should be taught in schools, says Telegraph

September 19, 2008 1 comment

Faith CartoonThe Telegraph does not of course think that creationism should be taught in schools – though I imagine a certain proportion of its staff and its readers do think so. The title of this article is making mockery of the Telegraph headline, “Creationism should be taught in science lessons, say teachers.” What the Telegraph really meant was that in a survey of sixty six teachers of science or religion, 28 percent said that they would support creationism being taught in schools.

Which I find odd, because 28% of sixty-six is 18.48, and I’m pretty sure you can’t have 0.48 of a person. Maybe I’m just unknowledgeable about the wonders of statistics.

All of this follows on from the Telegraph coverage of Professor Michael Reiss of the Royal Society, who said that teachers should deal with creationism in school if it was raised by pupils. I’m not quite sure why such a controversy was started about that – or by which lobby for that matter – but I’ll tell you now that if any child raises anything subject related in almost any school (apart from a faith school), the teacher will attempt to answer it in the most honest, humane way possible.

Mostly.

The only major exception is in faith schools, where the teachers are often subject to very specific rules about what they can say, lest it be interpreted that they are giving their own opinion, which is a big no-no. For a teacher to say that there is no scientific basis for creationism in a particularly obsessive Catholic school would easily become an issue of some magnitude for the school management. I know that at my school, teachers were reluctant to touch controversial subjects.

However, our religious education classes do talk about the story of creation. Apart from rote-learning the days on which everything was created in the Genesis story, the rival theories of universe-organisation and universe creation are discussed. Genesis, Kant and the Big Bang are all dealt with, and at least in the class which I was part of were implicitly presented as an evolution influenced by scientific developments under thinkers such as Copernicus and Galileo.

It’s less honest in some other schools, but then I’m not apologizing for faith schools.

That is not, however, the crux of the creationist issue. Biology seems to be the battle ground subject now – and Professor Reiss believes that by simply telling children that they are wrong if they are creationist, those children will be alienated. I agree with that, but I have some suspicions that the very idea of a child being told they are wrong in such a controversial matter are slight. They may be told there is no scientific basis behind the view, but that’s not the same thing.

Crucially, what Reiss is in effect demanding is a measuring of the scientific method against other ways of understanding. If we entertain the notion of creationism at all, then we must be prepared to descend into the pit of epistemology, to which all discussions of such a philosophical issue eventually dissolve. I think that in history as in any other subject, epistemological considerations are given much less attention than they deserve, in favour of a simplified, linear tale of development.

That said, I hold no truck with any view that conflicts with the notion that our senses tell an accurate picture of the world. Anything else is a recipe for inactivity, which, whether in politics or science, is simply unacceptable to a world that cries out for the change which others have laboured for and occasionally delivered throughout the ages. Whatever fancy, postmodern attacks on the notion of causality, we don’t need these in a classroom of young children.

To that extent I agree with Reiss, but only insofar as it renews the basis for scientific theories of creation (i.e. evolution, the big bang) and demolishes the basis for creationism. This is not, I think, what Reiss really means however. He means that we should accept woolly notions of ‘faith’ as entirely legitimate grounds for determining ones worldview, whether in respect to religion, arts, sciences or whatever. That is an entirely unacceptable point of view.

The only thing which the Telegraph coverage has managed to add to the debate are some flippant statistics, a reliable generalisation of which doesn’t exist since we don’t know among what type or what geography of teacher the survey was conducted. Bearing in mind my experience of departments of education in universities, it’s also entirely possible that the whole thing is rubbish. What intrigues me is the latent insecurity about what teachers will say to children.

At the head of a classroom, it’s true, the teacher is generally an unchallenged figure of authority – at the very least where knowledge of subject is concerned. However so long as the child attends a relatively liberal school, they will meet other teachers of different views. They will meet pupils willing to debate, which proceeds uncensored either by the exclusion of books from the library or by authoritarian fiat on playground discussion. In my experience, all of this results in a balance.

Whether or not parents agree with this really shouldn’t be the concern of educators. We’re not there to reaffirm comfortably held views. We’re there to provide intellectual challenges, to make children grow in their capacities and knowledge. While I feel very sorry that I might tell a child something a parent dislikes, it’s important to remember that children are not the chattels of their parents. They are individuals and should be engaged with as such – constructively.

Categories: General Politics, Religion
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