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Archive for November, 2009

The electoral argument for the deselection of Frank Field

November 30, 2009 23 comments

‘What we’ve go to do here is get people to understand it’s not a referendum it’s a choice and as a choice it has consequences,’ says Sean Woodward MP at the Labour party conference.

And the fast emerging electoral strategy, as reflected by Labour Matters, is all about ensuring that the voters see the clear blue water between Labour and the Tories. 

 The focus, say the electoral strategists and the PR people, should be on the way Labour is dealing with the economy, and the 1937-style  disaster that may well ensue if the Tories get into power.

And as election strategies go, it’s pretty good one, especially as it’s starting to be sharpened up by a concentration on how the Tories will ‘target investment on a tax giveaway of £200,000 to the 3,000 wealthiest estates’; in general the focus is on reminding people that, in the end, it is the Labour party that is wedded to the interests of the working class, not the Tories.  

Leave aside the small matter of the actual record of New Labour on commitment to the interests of the working class for just a moment, and we get an electoral pitch which is, on the doorstep at least, starting to gain some traction.  The slight narrowing of the opinion polls since the party conference is not all about the Tories failure to ‘seal the deal’, or about their indecisiveness over Europe; there is the start of a real move back to Labour, and the message is starting to get through in places where it is being well sent.

Time then, for Labour members, you’d think, to get behind the message.  

If you’re on the so-called moderate wing of Labour, it’s all about the best way of winning a new term; if you’re on the Left, at least the broad narrative is swinging in your favour, and it’s something to hang on to till the real opportunity to organize anew starts in May 2010.  The main thing for now is to defeat the Tories, because their winning really will be a disaster for everyone but the privileged few.

Unless you’re Frank Field, that is.

Our loveable old maverick Frank has been thinking the unthinkable again, decided he doesn’t care for any of this ‘spending our way out of recession stuff’, and has come over all biblical 

In his Comment is Free article, Frank warning of an impending economic apocalypse, and says that the only way this country can possibly survive is to cut savagely, and cut now.

 The fact that he is utterly, utterly wrong, and wouldn’t recognize a considered leftist economic argument if it struck him on the head from a very great height, need not detain us long. 

Briefly, his fear of massive inflation is simply nonsense, when the by far the biggest threat is Japanese-style deflation if the economy is kick-started.

Likewise, his argument that we run an imminent risk of losing our AAA+ credit status if we don’t cut now (no mention of other ways of reducing the deficit, note) is simply scare-mongering, and only likely to come true if he and his right wing friends keep the scare-mongering up. 

As Martin Wolf has pointed out, cutting the UK’s credit rating would mean that logically, the US’s credit rating would also need to be cut, and can anyone really see that happening (especially given the rapid flight to ‘safe’ US government bonds in the light of the Dubai crisis)?   Logically, even if the US rating were to be cut, the AA+ rate would simply become, in the case of the biggest world economy, the new AAA+, because for the medium term at least a stable US economy cannot simply be dispensed with.  The market, with their servants in the credit rating agencies, is not going to cut off its capitalist nose to spite its capitalist face.

Such real world thinking is, in any event, of little concern to Frank Field.  What is important to him, it seems, is that he should be out of step with mainstream Labour thinking, and be seen to be.   That’s our Frank, the loveable maverick.

So long as it was a vicious disregard for the real lives of the poor, in his ‘unthinkable’ welfare reforms, it was all ok, because it was only one step beyond where New Labour and Purnell were headed anyway.

This time, though, it’s different.  In setting out a line on economic policy which is absolutely out of the Tory mismanagement manual, Field is setting his face directly against the government’s electoral strategy, which is to create an ‘investment vs. cuts’ distance between themselves and Tories.

As such, the only reasonable assessment of Frank Field is that, given his high media profile, he has become an electoral liability.

And what does the Labour party do with people that it considers make it unelectable?   It expels them.  Ask Terry Fields (well he’s dead, but you know what I mean), another Merseyside MP.

If there’s any consistency in the way the Labour PLP deals with rebels that are damaging its electoral chances, Field should be given his marching orders, and a more compliant PPC put in place in time for the election.  

Yes, there’s a small chance that it might backfire and the seat be lost, but there is any event no guarantee that Field isn’t simply biding his time in a fairly safe Labour seat before switching sides after the election, and that might mean the difference for Labour between loss and hung parliament, or hung parliament and victory.

Better, I contend, to take the bull by the horns now and get rid of Field. 

In so doing, Brown would send out a message not just of new found strength and authority as PM safe from Compass-led plots, but – more importantly – send out a stronger message than any second hand party political broadcast can ever get over that Labour is serious about having a distinctive economic policy, one which really does defend Labour ‘hard working families’ in the tough times.

Will it happen? Well, if the idea gets taken up by @bevaniteellie on twitter, it might just.

Of course, if the Labour grassroots builds a head of steam on this, and gets rid of Frank Field, then Tom Harris MP (who had the same virulently ‘anti-Gordon’ banner advert as Iain Dale on his blog all weekend), would surely be next in line.

But business before pleasure.

Democracy and minarets

November 30, 2009 12 comments

If we define democracy as a way for the will of the majority to be carried into law, then the recent Swiss vote banning minarets is an example of democracy. Plenty of analogies exist in Western Europe – such as the French ban on religious symbols in schools. What offends, it seems, many democrats is that this is a measure directed by one section of voters against another section which maintains a deliberately separate identity.

We on the Left know very well that this measure, far from being a triumph for democracy – except in the formal sense – serves only to divide the people of Switzerland one from another. If democracy is merely about the relationship of individuals to authority then I’m wrong, but if democracy is about associative relationships and how we collectively relate to authority, then the Swiss have weakened that associative relationship and its collective relationship with the Swiss state.

The populist party which called for the referendum to ban minarets, as the most obvious sign of ‘Islamisation’, now knows that the Swiss people can be divided and scapegoats for the ills of our social system blamed, as a way to avoid changing the really key elements of that system. In this sense too, democracy is weakened, because democracy can only really proceed from a correct understanding of, for want of a better phrase, how things work. This is one of the key problems with a democracy based on capitalism.

Issues can be manufactured which have only a tentative relationship to reality, but about which people feel strongly enough to throw their time and energy into campaigning about (on either side). We see this in the US all the time, the apotheosis of which is ‘astroturfing’, where those with a lot of PR muscle spend time and money trying to mask their PR operations as ‘grassroots’ behaviour – such as Californian ‘big water’ recently, in a continuing attempt to ignore clean water guidelines and grab more public trust water through groups such as the “Latino Water Coalition”.

Or, more famously, the tea-baggers and their march on DC. Some seventy thousand people (amply subsidised by big business so they could all get to the march) genuinely believed that Obama is a socialist, who is going to make the country worse than the Soviet Union. It’s the ‘democratic’ right of people to express their beliefs, but these beliefs clearly aren’t based on rational argument or, dare I say, reality. And that makes the whole process less democratic and more responsive to material investments in PR, to further the cloud of lies and half-truths.

It does this by breaking down the associative ties which can be used to counteract media untruths, bias, selective reporting and the range of other features of our mass information networks that prevent some people forming a totally cogent view of the world. Whereas a properly integrated Islamic group might have pursued a ‘mass strategy’ of public meetings to discuss the issue and reassure the Swiss people – indeed co-opt their support in a defence of religious liberalism – instead, this field of activism was vacated and the far right occupied it.

The Swiss People’s Party gathered one hundred thousand signatures, amongst a population of about eight million, in the 18 months stipulated by Swiss law.

Now, as a result of all this, the Swiss People’s Party hold themselves up as paragons of democracy, as no doubt they will be held up by others of a right-wing persuasion. In actual fact, they were simply better able to work off the perversions of democracy intrinsic to capitalism, and the weak associative bonds that a system of private ownership of business fosters.

Further reading: Left Outside (edited version at LibCon), Paul Sagar, Old Holborn, Jim Jepps, Methodist Preacher and Derek Wall.

Tory hypocrisy and the reality of NHS care

November 29, 2009 4 comments

Here’s top Tory knob Iain Dale revelling in the fact that the quality of care in the NHS, which a previous Conservative administration did so much to destroy through its ‘managerial’ approach, is not as good as it should be:

‘All this is the result of the tick box mentality which Labour has instilled into NHS managers. As long as boxes are ticked, a hospital can be classified as ‘good’, even if standards of cleanliness and patient care leave a lot to be desired.’

This is the same Iain Dale who was recently railing against nurses having degrees, and displaying both a rank ignorance and a crass arrogance about nursing while doing so.   It’s to be noted that, while he’s happy to talk crap again on the subject of the NHS, he hasn’t had the courtesy to respond to the informed comments on his original post, from frontline nurses like Anne at Militant Medical Nurse who actually know what they are talking about, and who set out, for example:

‘Hospitals with a higher proportion of degree educated nurses at the bedside rather than health care assistants have a lower mortality rates. It’s been researched to death.’

So let’s be clear.  Dale is stupid and wrong when he whines on about it being Labour’s ‘tick box mentality’ which leads to dirty wards and patients receiving inadequate care. 

Certainly the audit culture that has grown since the 1980s does nothing to resolve the problems, but the MAIN REASONS for problems in wards are:

a) the wards are chronically understaffed, with not enough trained nurses per patient;

b) the terms and conditions of cleaning staff have been reduced to such an extent that cleaning of wards is not as good as it was, because they have less time.

The audit-based, target-driven excesses of New Labour are nothing more than a variant to the managerialism driven through the NHS under the Thatcher and then (more notably) the Major governments.  At the root of both of them is the exploitation of the NHS workforce, and a disregard for the reality of what happens on the ward. 

Dale’s hypocrisy, and the logic of his position, is spelt out by one of his commenters, for whom the solution to the latest revelations is not better staffing ratios, but to:

‘privatise the NHS’.

If people like Dale are actually interested in patient care, rather than just revelling in a new bad news story for Labour, they could do with listening to and engaging with people who actually do the caring and the cleaning, and who’d actually quite like to do more of it.

Note:  I’ll be coming back to these issues in more detail, but in the meantime I do highly recommend Anne at Militant Medical Nurse, who calls it as she sees it and does it very well.  Start with her most recent post on changes on ‘Why Nursing Care has changed’ and go backwards.

Categories: Socialism, Terrible Tories

Youth Fight for Jobs; demo and next steps

November 29, 2009 9 comments

Yesterday was the first major national demonstration of the Youth Fight for Jobs campaign. Perhaps just over a thousand three hundred young people attended the march, which moved from Malet St, just outside the University of London Students Union, to the Imperial War Museum in Kennington – via Trafalgar Square, Whitehall and Parliament Square. Yours truly was one of those at the front, occasionally waving a red flag and looking angry, so watch out for that, when the pictures are released.

I was impressed by the character and political clarity of the march (if not by all of the chants). A lot of the young people there were genuinely angry that they faced rising costs of their university courses, or their university courses being cut altogether (witness the recent happenings across the country from Sussex, to Birmingham to LCC), or the prospect of finishing their university courses or college courses and not having a job to go to. Their call was largely for the government to take a bigger hand in the provision of jobs.

Instead of privatisation, nationalisation. Instead of spending billions to bail out banks and secure the bonus culture of the self-styled masters of the universe, spending billions to provide jobs in reconstructing our national infrastructure – education, transport, health and so on. From a capitalist point of view, these are not extreme demands; and capitalism benefits in the long term from a better educated populace, from more efficient transport networks and so on. But of course, the market deals in short term fixes, not long term.

More encouraging was the way cries of, “The workers united / will never be defeated!” and “Workers of the world / unite!” received the most thunderous support from the assembled crowd. It was a fairly clear message to the thousands of people passed on the route that these students were not merely looking out for their own selfish interest. Similarly cries of, “No ifs, no buts, no public sector cuts!” demonstrated the solidarity of these students with their teachers and with other workers.

The PCS had a strong contingent on the demo, from what I saw, so the solidarity there was practical rather than merely theoretical – and both the CWU and the RMT have endorsed the Youth Fight for Jobs campaign. On a local level, one of the Kent district trades councils funded our minibus, which we used to take people up to the demo – a process which, I’m sure, was replicated around the country. This is the sort of gesture which builds support and trust between politicised workers and students and it augurs well for the future.

As with most demonstrations, I’m not sure what it has achieved. Sean Figg, one of the Socialist Party organisers for the South-East, went to Downing Street with a petition of some ten thousand names. Yet this is the same Labour government which simply ignored demonstrations of millions. That said, I heard some interesting remarks repeated – that the political character of this demonstration was different to the recent anti-war march, that it was better, angrier and definitely more aggressively socialistic.

Certainly the Socialist Party will have had a good day recruiting; during the lead-up to the march, there were several stalls selling books and t-shirts and badges, plus members wandering through the crowd selling newspapers and talking to people about joining the SP. This type of active propagandising is important – because it’s one thing to demand jobs, it’s another to turn that into a conscious desire to join and agitate with a revolutionary socialist party. So on that score, I hope they did well.

Other groups weren’t hugely in evidence, beyond the PCS banner. There was one flag from the AUCPB, though I’ve never heard of them.

So, a particular socialist party grows a little, more people come over to the ideas of revolutionary socialism, but the practical effect of the day on the situation is nothing much – at least, nothing with regard to the stated objectives of getting the government to provide jobs. It may be said that this is really just the start of the campaign, so I look forward to seeing the next steps, particularly in getting students not just interested and to meetings, but to take on practical activities like defending the jobs we have.

University occupations may well be a tactic we see more of – it came back on the agenda with the attempt to force universities to divest themselves of any interest in arms manufacture and export (esp. to Israel) over their use in Gaza, and with the recent attacks on university jobs has come back into the picture. Yet we need to do more. There are a lot of young people who don’t go to university, and jobs for them are looking equally precarious.

This is one thing I believed to be lacking on the demo; no talk about supporting private sector workers, but emphasis on public sector. A lot of the people we walked by will no doubt be reading the same papers or watching the same news channels that bleat about bloated public sector pensions and government spending that is too high. We offered those people very little. We need to be carrying across the message that it’s not just the public sector we care about; the fightback is for all sorts employed by business.

Absent from the demonstration was a USDAW banner, or emblem of USDAW support for the campaign. Considering that many hundreds of thousands of young people get jobs with the major retailers and in the other trades represented by USDAW, this is significant. Because whatever the government does, you can bet that Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda and the rest are doing it too. Getting rid of well-paid overtime for example. Anything that cuts the wages or lowers labour-related overheads for the company, to boost profits.

Unions like USDAW could take strong roles in offensive campaigns, such as demanding of the biggest companies that they spend money on providing more places for young workers and better training, training in transferable skills, across the board. This is not, obviously, what these unions are used to doing, but right there is where students come in. Plenty of students should be members of these unions, should be taking control of local union branches. We can be unionizing those young workers, and their non-student equivalents.

Our cry yesterday was “When they says cutback, we say fightback!” That’s eminently practicable. I’ll be reporting over the next few weeks how we do, and maybe by the time of the next march, it’ll be private sector young workers and unemployed leading the demonstration.

What is it to be a man (and why does it matter)?

November 27, 2009 15 comments

Gender has been one of the prime subjects du jour on the thinking person’s blog. The relationship between feminism and socialism has been discussed by HarpyMarx and I; Paul has discussed the role of gender in partitioning health care workers and now, the issue of Men’s Societies is creating a storm, with contributions from Comment is Free, Third Estate, Jim Jepps. Indeed this dispute has even acquired that modern emblem of political import: a facebook group.

The question of Men’s Societies being recognised by university student unions comes up in the context of frequent campaigns to attack women’s representation. Oxford University, one of the two universities seen to pioneer the idea, frequently faces attempts to abolish the position of Vice President (Women) in the Students Union, or to ‘merge’ the position into that of VP (Welfare and E-Opps), which doesn’t have to be a woman. Manchester suffers the same tendencies; e.g. the Conservative Future Women’s Officer who abolished her own role, after election.

Locations may change, the arguments stay the same; “having women’s officers is discriminatory”, “positive discrimination is still discrimination”, “men should have someone to represent their interests too”.

Now up comes the question of Men’s Societies in Manchester, ‘led by a couple of Tory toffs, a UKIP support, an evangelical Christian and an Orange Order supporter’. All in all, impeccable credentials for people who are supposed to leading discussion about how men can be oppressed through the genderised roles imposed on them by capitalist cultural hegemony. I think not. Nor is a venture like this liable to be any better if ‘the Left’ tries to intervene and seize control of such a society. The very idea is counter-productive.

Alex Linley, a supporter of the Manchester society declares, “There is so much conflicting information for men. There is massive confusion as to what being a man means, and how to be a good man. Should you be the sensitive all-caring, perhaps the ‘feminised’ man? Or should you be the hard, take no crap from anybody kind of figure?” Except Linley puts his finger on two very genderised stereotypes as the alternatives to be ‘investigated’ as potential identities for men. The point of course is to deconstruct and break down all identities.

Opponents of the societies characterize the methods of investigation of these stereotypes as, “Top Gear shows, gadget fairs, beer-drinking marathons and Iron Man competitions” (c/o Jim Jepps). I leave it to the reader to decide whether or not that’s accurate, but knowing Oxford University, and the sort of men who propose these sort of ideas, it’s more than likely to be true. I mean, this is a university where the Tory Association was seriously rebuked for anti-semitic japes. Intelligent debate doesn’t rank highly on their agenda.

Not to say that my opposition to Men’s Societies is a way of closing down discussion about male gender norms and how to defeat them. Quite the opposite. Yet since white and male are the ‘default’ identities of Western society, it stands to reason that white men can best challenge that norm by constructively engaging with other identities, rather than attempting to come up with an identity of their own. It needs to be said that women’s groups don’t allow that opportunity to engage as well as they should, but Men’s Societies certainly won’t.

Men, therefore, don’t require their own group or their own ‘welfare officer’, because there’s never a danger of straight white guys going unrepresented on a union executive. They certainly don’t go unrepresented in the popular imagination (except perhaps in Melanie Phillips’ Daily Mail column, where black gays and lesbians are taking over the universe). Men can certainly attempt to ‘deconstruct’ the concept of male identity – but the very idea of that deconstruction is socialistic.

It can be theoretically debated in socialist societies across the country, and can be practically challenged every time a man goes to a poetry reading, or does something off-the-wall, but it doesn’t require corporate action to correct ‘oppression’ – we’re not oppressed.

If there is a crisis in male self-confidence, it’s not because of a decentred identity; it’s because of a more rigidly defined identity being imposed through popular culture and lads’ mags whilst capitalism offers us ever more commodities and avenues by which we can defy that identity. All we have to do is choose, and if we want to talk about our choices and their significance, we can. It doesn’t require a Men’s Society.

On the other hand, from a practical point of view, whilst a lot of women involved in student public life take no shit from anyone (I heart Liv Bailey, Helen Bagshaw etc), a forum where women can say things without the risk of calling down male derision upon themselves is quite necessary. Without wishing to impute a genderised stereotype, the vast majority of men I’ve known have no fear of calling down female derision; politics is not a girl’s club, it is still very much a guy’s club, and student politicians can be amongst the worst of all.

Just remember, it’s men at Westminster who are being forced to address the nature of their all-male exclusive clubs, not women. This is just the tip of the iceberg of oppression, of course; I’ll let Catriona Rylance of Communist Students say it.

In our society, men experience no oppression simply because they are men. Women, on the other hand, experience oppression in numerous ways, whether from the double burden of childrearing and work, or through the myriad of sexist remarks, jokes and advertising that are the norm in the world we live in.

If you don’t believe this is the case – if you think women’s liberation has been achieved, or even gone too far – you can look at the underrepresentation of women in every democratic body from parliament to city councils to trade unions.

1 in 4 women experience domestic violence in their lifetimes. On average, women earn 20% less than their male counterparts. And if you think equality has been achieved in Students’ Unions, you need only consider the paltry number of women Presidents in the UK.

The imbalance in the reality necessitates the imbalance in the approach to each gender. It’s that simple.

Gender vs. Class: the case of nursing (Introduction)

November 26, 2009 1 comment

This post, and the posts that will follow at some point, started life in my mind as a companion piece to my personal story about class difference in the NHS 1980s, which was kindly edited by Don Paskini for publication at Liberal Conspiracy and attracted a good deal of, mostly supportive, comment.

That first post was supposed to set the scene for an exposition of how nursing and the NHS has changed since then, but how class bias remains at the heart of what remains wrong with the NHS.  It set out  in brief the challenge that remains for those of us who want not simply to laud the successes of the NHS – which are considerable – but to use it as a springboard for a properly socialist health service.  

 The original post, focused on how class bias affected nursing in the 1980s, was ‘inspired’ by a series of crassly ignorant, reactionary posts on rightwing blogs following the announcement that all trained nurses in England will have degrees by 2014 (none of these bloggers noticed that this is already the case in Scotland and Wales).

Between the original post and this one, however, my blogging comrade Dave wrote an interesting, brief (for him) post setting out the need to retain the primacy of class analysis and struggle over and above gender analysis.  The post prompted strong reactions from socialist feminists who contend that the struggle against patriarchy, and the struggle against capitalism, are and must be interrelated.

This new series of posts seeks to put flesh on the bones of that discussion, by examining the very real relationship between gender-focused and class-focused activism in nursing between the 1970s and 1990s.

My main contention is that the gender-focused nursing activism that took place in this period has militated against the working class as a whole, and has contributed to a less good NHS as a result.

I recognise that this is a controversial assessment, and it is not a conclusion that I have reached happily, not least because it might be interpreted as a reactionary assessment more in keeping with the ‘anti-feminist’ Melanie Phillips (see below) rather than one on keeping with values in support of the feminist movement. 

Nor is it an assessment that leads me to the conclusion that all gender-focused movements are destined to be deficient if they do not specifically recognise the primacy of the class struggle, though I recognise is that is how it might be interpreted by ‘classical Marxists’.  (Indeed I would argue, along with Norman Geras (20 years ago), that the whole conception of classical Marxism is in itself an invalid ‘post-Marxist’ construction, and a product of intellectually incoherent thinking of the same 70′s-90′s period that I examine here.)

Rather, the ‘generalisability’ or otherwise of the primacy of class over gender in the overall socialist struggle – in itself a term worthy of contestation - is something I would hope that will come out in the commentary on these posts. 

While I seek to set out a historical analysis of a period and an environment in which I believe a narrow focus on nursing (and by contestable extension) women’s position within capitalist society has actually been deleterious to the cause of socialism, I retain an open mind in whether ‘class-free’ feminism may or will always create the same problems.  Like many male socialists, I struggle to come to terms with what feminism should mean to me, or even CAN mean to  me, and as Tim acknowledged in his comments on Dave’s post, I make no pretence either to being as well-read as I should be. 

While I will make up what follows in subsequent posts as I go along, and while any comments may mean changes to the trajectory, this is the general schema I have in my head at the moment:

 Part 2: The development of a new ‘ethos’ of nursing in the 1970s (initially in the US) and how it culminated in Project2000, the new degree-based nursing, with a focus on the (contested) centrality to these development  of feminist conceptions of ‘traditional nursing’ as a Judaeo-Christian patriarchal narrative of oppression;

 Part 3:  The popular narrative of changes in nursing, as expressed by influential rightwing commentators like Melanie Phillips in the changing NHS context’

Part 4: A class-focused analysis of the changes in the NHS and of the development of the popular narrative about them, set out in part 3. 

Here, the focus  is on how material changes in the NHS under Thatcherism co-opted, in the absence of coherent leftwing opposition, the emergence of the new nursing ‘profession’ to its own ends, and resulted in a MORE exploited workforce and poorer care feeding into the popular ‘anti-feminsist narrative’ described in part 3.

This part will build on and integrate some of the comments made by nurses and others on the original piece at Liberal Conspiracy, which were largely supportive of and brought historical detail to my provisional claim that class bias in the NHS is a significant constraint to its progress, and how ‘divide and rule’ tactics employed by NHS management and government in the 1980s and 1990s have led to both worsened terms and conditions for those at the ‘bottom’ of the workforce, and concomitantly reduced standards of care. 

If you want to jump ahead, the most persuasive and useful comments on my first piece are here, here, here, here  and here, with my own responses to these comments here and here.

Part 5:  Conclusions, if I can be arsed, though I’m hoping that what develops from the comments may mean there is no need for this.

There is useful background reading, should you feel so inclined, in Celia Davies’s ‘Gender and the Professional Predicament in Nursing’, a contemporary (1995) feminist account of the changes then feeding through, and in Ann Bradshaw’s ‘The Project 2000 nurse’.  There is also  a fascinating and revealingly elitist ‘definition of nursing’ provided by the Royal College of Nursing here.

Chavez’ fifth international is not a step forward

November 24, 2009 23 comments

A few days ago, at an extraordinary conference of the PSUV in Venezuela, Chavez announced his intention to form a “Fifth International” built around Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, while not resurrecting ‘old structures’ and ideas that have become useless. Like real socialism perhaps. In earlier remarks, Chavez defended Carlos ‘the Jackal’ as a revolutionary, along with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. Elements conveniently absent from the reports by Chavez’ cheerleaders amongst the British Left.

A fine account of the deficiencies of Chavez’ regime can be found here, including details of his sending two hundred PSUV members to China to be trained by the ‘revolutionary’ regime of Hu Jintao. Chavez’ claim that the new international should provide a school for cadres to study ideology, it hardly bodes well that he considers the Chinese model of education to be a good one. Meanwhile the Mision Robinson, the programme undertaking the abolition of illiteracy in Venezuela, is stalling – along with many other programmes of reform.

Is the call to a Fifth International liable to gain any traction? A certain section of trades unionists certainly like to parade alongside the ‘Bolivarian Revolution’, and will be touring the UK with members of the trades union leadership from Venezuela in the next few weeks. Attending the conference of the PSUV were members of the Labour Party ‘Friends of Venezuela’ campaign (of which the founding secretary and treasurer were Jon Trickett and Jon Cruddas). But in terms of wider working class sentiment in support of Chavismo, not much can really be said.

People don’t want another war, so they’ll come along to Hands Off the People of Iran (HOPI) or Hands Off Venezuela (HOV) marches and demonstrations – but there are frequent reports of the Venezuelan state using repressive measures against Venezuelan workers – and our own workers are not soft enough in the head to believe that the dictators Chavez praises, like Colonel Gadaffi of Libya, really are ‘socialists’, with the interests of workers at their heart. There’s a good chapter in Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed which explains the type of echo Chavez might get.

At present the chief contribution to the treasury of thought is declared to be the Webbs’ book, Soviet Communism. Instead of relating what has been achieved and in what direction the achieved is developing, the authors expound for twelve hundred pages what is contemplated, indicated in the bureaus, or expounded in the laws. Their conclusion is: When the projects, plans and laws are carried out, then communism will be realized in the Soviet Union. Such is the content of this depressing book, which rehashes the reports of Moscow bureaus and the anniversary articles of the Moscow press.

Friendship for the Soviet bureaucracy is not friendship for the proletarian revolution, but, on the contrary, insurance against it. The Webbs are, to be sure, ready to acknowledge that the communist system will sometime or other spread to to the rest of the world.

“But how, when, where, with what modifications, and whether through violent revolution, or by peaceful penetration, or even by conscious imitation, are questions we cannot answer.”

This diplomatic refusal to answer – or, in reality, this unequivocal answer – is in the highest degree characteristic of the “friends”, and tells the actual price of their friendship. If everybody had thus answered the question of revolution before 1917, when it was infinitely harder to answer, there would have been no Soviet state in the world, and the British “friends” would have had to expand their fund of friendly emotion upon other objects.

These were the same Webbs who opposed the General Strike in the UK, for example. The sort of middling people who enjoy popular enthusiasm for almost anything, from a comfortable distance, whilst lacking the principles which would hold their own feet to the fire and provoke them into real action to achieve anything on behalf of the ideals they espouse. Not that I’m necessarily characterising Cruddas or Trickett in this way. I’m simply saying that, as during the Russian Revolution, it’s easy to support anything when you don’t have to act yourself.

Bottom line: I don’t see that Chavez’ call for a fifth international will get much more than tepid hangers-on here in the UK. In Latin America, however, the story might be different – and this is perhaps why socialists elsewhere need to take cognisance. A top down approach to organising a Latin American socialist congress might divert the needed pressures away from the governments of participating countries, governments which while they are left wing do not unambiguously represent workers. This is what the Comintern did for Stalin and it was disastrous.

A grandiose plan to rally the world’s socialists (such as are acceptable, no doubt, to Chavez himself) to his banner may be an internationalist gesture – an attempt to reach agreements that will allow expansion of social democratic tendencies on the part of leaders. Left-mayoralties, governorships and presidencies of the world, unite! It may even pull together sections of the working class in areas where the Bolivarian Revolution has great prestige. But coupled to Chavez’ antipathy to the US and friendship towards dictators, it could be another Comintern.

Speaking of his antipathy towards the US, Chavez’ militarism, particularly the spending of money on Russian and Chinese military hardware, even while infrastructure reforms are hardly begun, is disturbing. Fronting off between Venezuela, Ecuador and Colombia is not encouraging either. Yet the sort of quasi-nationalist rhetoric that emerges from Chavez, as well as his moves to squash any socialist activism independent of the PSUV, coupled to his reconciliation with sections of the capitalist class, potentially make war more likely, with Chavez as a new Bonaparte.

The last thing the world’s socialist movement needs right now is a self-proclaimed socialist hero, newly garlanded by a gathering of international socialists, to suddenly encourage or begin a war that will do little but butcher peasants or invite the wrath of US imperialism upon more jungle villages. For all these reasons, we need to be very cautious in our approach to this Fifth International. Patient work by socialists of and amongst the working class will produce socialist cadres; they will not be commanded into existence by even the most gifted of Generals.

Compass – the end may be nigh

November 24, 2009 1 comment

Today’s email from Compass smacks of desperation – a desperation to remain relevant.

It exhorts me to send in my alternative manifesto ideas, though I am told to keep them to 200 words:

‘At our AGM we told our members that we would be working with other organisations to put together an alternative manifesto which would be released in early January. But to do this right we need you to tell us what you think about the things that really count in your daily life and those of your family, friends and work colleagues. This cannot be another manifesto full of left clichés but something that appeals to normal people we have to attract.’

I may be wilfully misinterpreting, but what this seems to suggest is that Compass’s previous missives on what should be in Labour’s manifesto have indeed been ‘full of left clichés’, and they’re desperate for someone, anyone – even normal people will do – to give them some cliché-free words.

We have, of course, been here before.  It’s only a few short months since Compass were running a big razamatazz competition for policy ideas.  The plan was that the winning ideas:

‘will now form the campaigning priorities for Compass in the upcoming months. We will pick up on these ideas over the next year and incorporate them into our campaigning, in our calls for real change and in our alternative manifesto for the next election.’

How exactly is that different from this time around?  I’m afraid I just don’t know.

What Compass pretends to be is a mass political movement of the centre-left, ready and waiting to take over the Labour party and save it from itself. 

Unfortunately, for Compass, it is none of those things in reality.

While it claims a support base of some 30,000, which would be impressive enough, the reality is that figure is based on the number of email addresses it has garnered through its website.  It calls everyone a ‘Compass supporter’ in its emails, including me; I have never given any indication of support.  Nor has Kerry McCarthy MP.

Compass is not a political movement as such.   It has never bothered to try to establish itself at the grassroots of the party, preferring to rely on a press release strategy and a well-designed website.  It has not even bothered, as far as I know, and unlike other left and centre-left organisations, tried to get its representative on the to NEC through participation in the grassroots slate. 

In fact Compass is little more than a think-tank, privately funded initially by Neal Lawson, and now funded through the membership fees of around 4, 000 people who have decided the publications it provides to members are worth the fee. 

Relatively few of this 4,000 are political activists.  Its membership, such as it is, does not even bother with its internal elections (237 people voted this year), because they know there is little real influence to be had; the decisions on what Compass stands for, if anything, are made by the worthy few, and the membership is invited to participate in the competitions.

And as we approach a general election, Compass is becoming an irrelevance. 

Its last great hurrah may turn out to have been its much commented, much derided attempt by its ‘management committee’ to stage a coup against the parliamentary leadership

To what extent this was ever serious, or simply the dinner party witterings of its illuminati, is not very clear, because the whole notion was dead and buried almost as soon as it was born, but the reaction it got from both left and right in the party summed up the changing attitude to Compass pretty well.  As Luke asked succinctly, ‘who do Compass think they are?’.

As Compass fades from view over the next few months, so will the opportunity increase for a proper political movement – the Labour Representation Committee – to raise its profile.  

If you are an LRC member, you are generally politically active, and there will be a lot of political action in the next six months, and in the year that follow the general election (whatever the result).

The LRC will, I hope, distinguish itself both through its commitment to a general election campaign waged on the basis that, while New Labour may be a long way from perfect, a Conservative government will be much, much worse news for the working class.  

Beyond that, the LRC will seek to extend its organisational reach into CLPs up and down the country, and to engage at proper grassroots level with working class organisations and causes. 

Compass will do none of these things, perhaps with the notable exception of the work that Sam Tarry and his comrades in Jon Cruddas’s own constituency.

I don’t yet believe that the LRC political organisation strategy is as well developed as it could be, and I have said so, beginning here, and at length. 

But as the Compass lustre fades, and it becomes recognised as the media-oriented think tank that it is, the LRC has the opportunity to pick up some of  the Compass membership, and help them to get involved not in silly policy competitions, but in proper political activity.

Compass has served a useful purpose, of that I have no doubt, and while I am critical of some of the stuff that comes out of it, and of its lack of political organisation,  I think Dave is right to point out that talk – any political talk – is a step forward. 

But now I sense Compass’s usefulness is drawing to an end, and that an organisation focused as much on action as on words will need to take its place.

To a dialectic of pretension (and some notes on blogging)

November 23, 2009 Leave a comment

I admit to being something of a misanthropist, on occasion. Sitting in my regular coffee house, I have to wear earphones because listening to some of the ill-informed conversations going on around me really gets me uptight. One conversation today about goings on in Venezuela managed to get past my usual defences of either music or my own conversations with other people and instantly I was irritated. And I was wrong to be.

The conversation was being carried on by people who clearly didn’t know much about the different political groups in Venezuela, much less the relationship between them or to the people. Moreover, it was being conducted by someone I’ve never seen on a picket line, or at a political meeting. These days I know by sight the majority of Socialist Student or SWS members, UAF participants, Kent Labour Students etc. And even if the person was somewhere, somehow politically active beyond my ken, plenty of others who talk like this simply aren’t.

This gap between talk and practice is basically what I define as pretension. It is someone striking a pose, perhaps self-consciously, perhaps because they really believe they care. It is true of virtually every aspect of how we define ourselves; plenty of people talk the talk about things like politics, but rarely do they really walk the walk – as defined by me, obviously, because inside our own heads we’re all judge, jury and executioner of those we come into contact with.

Insufferably arrogant as that may seem, strolling home I was struck by a thought. The nature of Marxist dialectics is to think in terms of process, of becoming and ceasing to be, rather than in the abstract – because nothing exists in the abstract. This puts the gap between talk and practice into perspective; it is not irreducible, but in reality one is connected to the other. More talk, more learning, will lead to some form of action, the logical conclusion of every strongly held opinion, which opinions often are if people are waxing lyrical about them.

Of course, from the outside, we can facilitate this process by spreading word about issues ourselves as well as being available to provide ways in which people can move from talk to action. This is the correct response, rather than dismissing such talk with derisive comments along the lines of, “Bloody students”, which contains so many invalid assumptions that my head should have exploded.

Indeed, we should recognize that even talking about the matter is helpful, as it encourages others to think about their own position – and ultimately a great quantity of people thinking and talking will result in a qualitative change – towards action. Likewise blogging is a form of this coffee-house chatter, which encourages others to think and talk about political issues, undertaken as a pose – as happens – or in the hope that enough evidence gathered to our side, the correct persuasive argument, will convince readers that now is the time to do something.

What we suggest doing is usually inherent to the arguments we’re making – such as the conviction of myself and Paul that a local network of points of resistance is an absolutely necessity; trades councils and unions in general, socialist parties, interest groups and so on. It’s up to us not merely to pontificate but to be prepared to offer channels for that activity. As anyone who blogs will know, however, what activity we should be undertaking is often hotly debated – everyone wants to encourage ‘the right kind of activism’.

Discussions on this blog and elsewhere, between organisers and supporters of the Power 2010 campaign on the one hand and those who dispute their method, exemplify this sort of debate.

Just how hotly this is debated, I think, depends on the stakes – and because blogs (and political activism generally, for the present) exist on a large sea of continued depoliticization (not the same as apathy), the stakes are huge even whilst having tiny ramifications, because every group and every approach is prepared to fight to the death to convince anyone they possibly can. One more or less activist can mean the difference between being able to declare something a success or having it declared DOA.

One more or less criticism can mean the difference between feeling vaguely self-satisfied that you are contributing to ‘the cause’ or feeling that you’re just a poser behind a keyboard with a few posh friends and contacts you can lobby.

Yet anger at other approaches is the same as anger at the student sitting in the coffee house, being completely politically inactive but wanting to seem intelligent, or radical or whatever. It is inappropriate, even if it is an easy pressure valve for activists to vent through. Some other approaches exist that are utterly contrary to everything we, as activists, want to achieve – but a great many are muddled, inconsistent and unlikely ever to possess real social weight through a failure to orient towards the real social divisions in our world.

This is the difference between being actively conservative, reactionary, and groping towards one’s own position through a fog of information mediated by one’s one role in and practices vis a vis society. This is a situation that will be clarified and polarised rapidly through the onset of an active revolutionary movement, larger and capable of bigger achievements than at present. Again, rather than an irreducible gap between two political positions, the living processes that sustain politics can bring people around to a correct orientation.

All that is required is to continue articulating those processes, and providing the sort of organisation which can understand how best to intervene in them. None of which requires unnecessary hostility or even an over-emphasis of and concentration upon differences – something I have been guilty of. With that said, I want to make clear that Jon Cruddas and his Compass lot will still not escape the odd verbal battering around here. Said with all the love in the world of course.

TCF research proposal on climate change

November 23, 2009 2 comments

As an establishment with a growing reputation for its social scientific research, Though Cowards Flinch (TCF) has decided to approach the UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) with a view to the funding of a major inter-disciplinary research project into the socio-political and psychological aspects of the  climate change debate.  

Letters of support (and offers of matched funding) for our application are welcome.  Here, as an aid to the writing of your support letter, is our own letter to the Chief Executive of the ESRC which summarises our proposed research.

Dear Chief Executive

We do not know much about climate change.  How would we?  We’re social scientists, not real scientists with test tubes and a white coat (pictured).

However, we do have a big multi-disciplinary social science project we’d like you to give us a lot of money to do, and which we think will be helpful in further in knowledge about why a lot of people talk utter bollocks about climate change, while some other people talk comparative sense.

The research can be divided into two separate parts: statistical analysis and psychological assessment.

Statistical research

We will create a massive dataset in SPSS to examine the extent to which scepticism about climate change expressed by some ‘bloggers’ and internet-based journalists has a statistically positive correlation to a range of other belief patterns.

Further, through a range of complex regression analysis techniques we will assess whether any or all of these other belief patterns have a causal relationship with these bloggers’/journalists’ scepticism about climate change.

These beliefs, expressed as hypothesised independent variables, will be finalised at the pilot stages of the research, but are likely to include the belief that:

a) we are all taxed too much;

b) poor people are generally to blame for things because they are feckless;

c) it’s all a conspiracy by leftwingers – all of it, especially ‘multiculturalism’;

d) the BBC is full of Marxists with a big plot;

e) scientists are all part of a global conspiracy to do with green taxes, which will then be siphoned off to may for equality and diversity officers in loony left councils;

f) the Labour government should really be called ZaNuLiebour because it’s like living in Zimbabwe, what with everything;

g) Paul Krugman’s proposed extension of Godwin’s Law is not a critical comment on the state of the blogosphere, but a worthy challenge.

Psychological research

This aspect of the research will involve in-depth interviews with bloggers/journalists who  are climate change sceptics.  The main purpose of the interviews will be to examine the extent to which their view that scientists only use/reveal data which supports their existing theory of man-made climate change, is in fact a case of psychological transference, whereby they impute to the scientific community their own characteristic behaviour, of which they are secretly deeply ashamed,  of making wild generalisations based on selectively chosen data. 

The working hypothesis for this aspect of the research is that the greater the blogger/journalist’s own propensity to make massive and totally unvalid assumptions about things based on pretty well no evidence at all and without even bothering to do even the slightest background research, the more they are likely to suggest that climate change scientists do the same, in the belief that this will make them look intelligent and balanced, as opposed to the total foaming nutjobs that they really are.

Assuming you are content with our proposal, please send the research money in a big envelope, marked ‘holiday money’ for our administrative convenience.

Yours sincerely

TCF team

Categories: General Politics
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