Archive for December, 2010

New Year Resolutions

December 31, 2010 5 comments

Here are my New Year’s resolutions. 1-9 are within my control, more or less.  10 depends on some other people. 

By the end of 2011  I intend/hope to have:

1) Resolved some outstanding intellectual incoherencies around a) the current limits vs. the desirability of social democracy; b) leftwing small statism in the context of the necessary shorter term defence of the welfare state;  c) libertarianism vs. using social and economic power to take liberties; d) how the best bits of Modern Monetary theory might be adapted to the socialist cause.

2) Published two books – one about politics and one about cricket;

3) Read the whole Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action;

4) Set up a social enterprise which picks the bones out of the dismantling of the NHS;

5) Had measurable influence in the third sector world over the roll-out of Social Impact Bonds in the context of the Coalition’s commissioning plans, if they proceed as planned;

6) Become a street pastor;

7) Got back to my fighting weight, done some regular cricket umpiring and  and started flute lessons;

8) Written a paper on internal Labour party democracy reform which actually gets read;

9) Completed my tax returns without having to stay up all night to meet the deadline;

10) Been a small part of a big movement which brings down the government.

Categories: General Politics

A fight without sectarianism, is not a fight without arguments

December 30, 2010 12 comments

The strength in the anti-cuts movement, emanating from the draconian and dangerous agenda of cuts from the existing government, and led in many ways by students and trade union activists, has increased greatly in its current form – and as a consequence further questions are being raised inside it, that extend further than merely “what is it we are against?” (as Tom Miller has rightly written about here).

As the movement grows even stronger, numbers increase and demands start to be met, it is inevitable that questions will get tougher: “Yes, we want change to government policy, but what will that change look like?” and “Yes, the government should crumble, but how do we promote and help form a credible government in its place?”

Many people have been fairly scepitcal of entering into debates on theory, saying things like “save this waffle for the dinosaurs at the branch meeting” – I’m not of that opinion, and I’m also glad of the reference Miller, mentioned above, makes about Lenin (I myself used the Spanish Civil War, for example, to illustrate a point on so-called “left unity” ).

A common criticism of Marx is that while he critiqued and criticised capitalism expertly, he spent less time mapping out what Communism would be like operationally or morally. Perhaps he needn’t have. This, people will say, allowed Communist leaders to do some pretty drastic things justifying their means by their ends, while public intellectuals could excuse killing if it meant a Communistic outcome. It’s no surprise to me that in the periods from WWI to the end of the Cold War the left were not only carved up into Reformists, democratic socialists, revolutionary socialists, utopian socialists, Communists, and Anarchsists, but each of these were carved up in the form of libertarian socialists, Bolshevists, Menshevists, Council Communists (you get my gist).

The left is a broad spectrum, inevitably it will fall out on issues, and at points one faction will wonder why another is being compromised with (why, for example should a statist reformist, work with an an anti-statist libertarian socialist, while he compromises with a civic republican on certain matters). It’s good to belong to a broad church, but differences should be rationalised, and difficult conversations should be engaged – and they should be done earlier rather than later. It is not an option to put off this conversation, no matter how difficult, and no matter how inconsequential it seems at the time, particularly as some of the activism is so exciting and so all encompassing.

In order to steer clear of in-fighting later on, difficult conversations are a must – now.

The movement of students, workers and sympathisers of whatever stripe, with continued energy, focus, and direction, will start to see differences; there was a feeling the night before the tuition fee bill vote that Lib Dem MPs were on their backfeet – we may have lost that battle, but there is a war to be won (a cliche, sure, but you see my point). Unity can bring this disgusting and ideological government to its knees, but as that other cliche establishes, action without theory is aimless.

When tabloid life mirrors blog art

December 30, 2010 Leave a comment

The other day I posted a whimsical little number, pretending to be utterly outraged at the cost of Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs), as measured by the cost per crime detected, following the release of data showing it costs £1.2 m per crime detected by a PCSO.

The point was simple enough.  Using these statistics is wholly and utterly  misleading, because:

 a) crime detection is simply not part of a PCSO’s role; they are there for visible crime prevention, reassurance and more general community intelligence gathering; 

b) while the odd crime detection statistic might be recorded against a PCSO’s name, in general any such crime will be recorded against as a Police Officer detection; this avoids any double counting. Indeed, it is possible that the ‘crimes detected’ figure which actually does show up against PCSOs more or less  represents the on-the-spot fines that PCSOs are empowered to impose e.g. for littering.

This basic logic didn’t stop the stats being splashed across national newspapers, with the usual TPA rent-a-quote, and the Press Association being uncritically copied across dozens of local newspaper websites. 

The comments on the papers’ websites reflected the expected split of those whose prejudices about ‘plastic policemen’ were confirmed (prejudices started by those same newspapers in earlier coverage), and a smaller number who called the papers out for their ridiculous coverage e.g.:

It is very clear to me and other PCSOs that this is a puerile attempt to discredit all police forces and PCSOs. In relation to your financial research it is both inaccurate and has the senslesss ramblings of a struggling reporter. PCSOs are not employed to detect crime.  However, during the course of their duties they furnish the police with huge amounts of information to assist in the detection of crime. Police officers value their role as they take on the lower level problems. This allows them to deal with the more serious issues that papers like yours love nothing better than to rubbish the hard working police officers such as.

In my own whimsy piece I made use of the fact that, when the Daily Mail covered these statistics just two months ago, the cost per crime detected (from the statistics for only one police force area) was calculated at £156,000 crime, but that this had ‘risen’  eightfold to £1.2m when all force data was aggregated. 

The massive discrepancy, I suggested, might just be a clue to the fact that the data is wholly misleading, and the fact that the paper had not even cross-checked its own coverage from 8 weeks previously was indicative of tabloid journalism at its worst.

That was criticism of the Daily Mail, and valid enough.

But then there’s the Daily Express, which chose to run this ‘story’ as its front page headline yesterday. It gets the ‘public spending campaigner’ from the TPA in early to do its dirty work, and then gets on to this little gem:

The latest figures show that the cost of PCSOs per crime in Nottinghamshire rose from £354,000 in 2008-09, when they detected 19 crimes, to £6.7million in 2009-10.
Yup, read that carefully.  The Daily Express really is saying that the cost of PCSOs per crime detected rose NINETEEN-fold in one year.  In other words, it’s suggesting that PCSOs became nineteen times as bad at their job.
And it does so, apparently, without any of the irony I sought to brought to my piece.
Categories: General Politics

Unit cost of Police Support Officer increases 769% in two months, shocking new statistics reveal

December 28, 2010 3 comments

Shockingly crap statistics have revealed how the cost of Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) surged by a massive 769% in two months. 

According to both the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, costs per crime detected were already a huge 156,000 per crime detected in October 2010.

But in figures revealed today by the Press Association, it has emerged that these costs have increased to a staggering £1.2 million per detection.   

That an increase of nearly 8 times in 8 weeks, or a 100% increase per week.

In October, the apolitical thinktank The Taxpayers Association were left fuming about the costs, with a spokesman only able to splutter:

Taxpayers want real bobbies on the beat, not these plastic policemen.  With no powers of arrest and incredibly low productivity, it is hard to see how these PCSOs are value for money for taxpayers, or indeed useful.

There has been no reaction from the well-regarded thinkthank today, and it is thought that all its spokespeople may simply be too apopleptic with rage even to speak.

The usual mealy-mouthed, politically correct voices have been wheeled out again to point out that detecting crime is not what PCSOs do anyway, with Assistant Chief Constable Julian Kirby, of South Wales Police, who should obviously be sacked, bleating incoherently:

The role of Police Community Support Officers is to develop and sustain community cohesion, which they are valued for here in South Wales. Their work to improve the quality of life for residents comes to fruition in a variety of ways and has made a real difference.

Another immediately sackable non-job bureaucrat at Nottinghamshire Police simply wittered on about the fact that PCSOs have been involved in detecting many more crimes than the official figures show, but the detection is allocated to a police officer under standard reporting systems.

But as the totally reliable and entirely appropriately used statistics show, PCSOs are clearly a total waste of money and sacking’s probably too good for them.

The shock figures have been picked up by national and regional media outlets across the country, with more high quality, in-depth reporting on the Press Association figures emerging from the Daily Mail  again [update: the TPA spokesman has recovered from apoplexy as this article has been written and has wisely condemned the scheme as 'a device for politicians' ]. 

It is thought likely that at some point Daily Mail reporters will remember that they did the same story with massively different figures just recently, as the newspaper has far too much journalistic credibility just to keep on taking figures given it at face value, making no cross-referencing attempts at all, and then just ringing up the TPA for a quote.

Regional newspaper websitees joining the totally justifiable and impeccably researched condemnations include Pendle Today, the Buchan Observer, The Rye and Battle Observer, The York Star, the Uttoxeter Advertiser, the Leigh Journal and the Mid-Devon Star


Categories: General Politics

Beans factories and creeping liberal elitism

December 28, 2010 21 comments

The kids are freezing, but the solidarity is just amazing.

They could be at home, snug from the sub-zero temperatures, but here they are, stamping their feet for warmth, keeping the fires lit with whatever they can lay their hands on, together against injustice. 

They’re here to win, and they’ll do what it takes.  

This is not the end. This is just the beginning.

And where is all this dramatic solidarity taking place? 

Not, on this occasion, against the backdrop of famous London scenery. 

This time, it’s outside a beans factory on the drab outskirts of Wigan.

Of course, I can’t do Laurie Penny as well as Laurie Penny can do Laurie Penny, and nor do I want to, but my point is obvious enough; the same kind of solidarity in action can be written up as a radical game-changing movement in one media luvvie-friendly environment, but hardly register as an event in another, less metropolitan, less journo-heavy one.

Or to be more blunt, the liberal intelligentsia is not as interested in traditional working class struggle as they are in middle class student protest.

The facts behind the Heinz factory strike are straightforward enough. 

Despite record profits this year, and 9% dividends to shareholders, Heinz managers are using the broad context of ‘austerity Britain’ to hold down wages below inflation, having imposed a pay freeze in 2009 because of ‘uncertainty’ about the international economy.  This includes explicit comparison to the low wage settlements across the UK, including the public sector, in a convenient reversal of the government-pushed line that the public sector has it cushy compared to the private.

All this comes from a company which makes great play of its Corporate Social Responsibility, but which has ‘downsized’ its international workforce from 36,000 to 29,600 since 2006. 

It’s a struggle between a big company intent on the exploitation of its workforce, and a workforce now prepared to hit back, who have gone through the whole strike ballot process, got 90% approval for strikes, and are now acting in solidarity.   

That is, it’s a fightback against the kind of injustice that Laurie Penny, in her more conciliatory latest piece (in response to Alex Callenicos’ critique), claims that is at the root of this new movement:

Alex Callenicos is right: students can’t do it alone. Of course they can’t. Nor can schoolkids, or workers, or people who are unemployed. That’s what class solidarity is all about, and solidarity has been the watchword of these protests…….The power of organised labour was undercut across the world by building in higher structural unemployment and holding down wages, by atomising workers, outsourcing and globalising production whilst keeping working people tied to increasingly divided and suspicious communities.

But it’s also a struggle between capital and labour, in a part of the country well away from both the mainstream and radical new media, which has had scant attention.

Any proper reporting attention that it has had has come primarily from the ‘hard left’ organizations Socialist Worker and The Socialist Party.

These are the very organizations of course, whose publications Laurie reviles. Or rather she reviles the people who choose to try and sell them; she does not seem too interested in what the newspapers themselves actually contain:

Some of their ideas, like the notion that one can truly change the world by standing on the corner of every demonstration selling copies of the party newspaper, are a little antique…

Now I’m not saying these newspapers couldn’t be better (to be fair, I’ve not seen them much in the last few years), and  certainly think they would benefit from being regionalized or even hyper-localised, perhaps along the lines of the Hackney Citizen, for example, and I also think the Socialist Worker could benefit from a conscious strategy to ‘drive’ readership from hard copy to the website over a specific time period.

Nor am I a supporter of either the SWP or the Socialist Party, because I do not have revolutionary aims; I am a really very moderate democratic socialist, committed to effecting changes in institutional power structures which redress inequalities between capital and labour, through a combination of participative and representative democratic means.

Nonetheless, I think the genuine efforts of committed organizations and individuals to bringing to wider public attention the kind of news, and the kind of news angle, so absent from the mainstream, deserve a bit more than a casual dismissal of the type Laurie provides.  These organizations do not, of course, claim or think that a newspaper in itself will create change; they see it as part of an overall strategy, and Laurie’s sarcastic simplification of what the SWP is about is hardly conducive to the broader conciliatory tone of the rest of her article

This sarcastic tone is, though, I fear, reflective of a more general tendency to dismiss ‘traditional’ leftwing organization and militancy, of the type which has actually often been quite effective over the years at defending working class interests (if not bringing a desired revolution).

Indeed, I am struck by the similarity in tone between what this confident new movement has to say about the ‘traditional’ left and what Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a hero of the 1968 Paris uprisings (the self-professed benchmark for the current movement) had to say in a book published just weeks after the main events:

Factory work, trade union ‘militancy’, verbose party programmes, and the sad, colourless life of their elders are subjects only for sarcasm and contempt. The same sort of disdain is the reason why so many students have taken a radical stand…(p.42, see also Dave’s fine article).

Now I know that for many readers, pointing this kind of thing out may seem both old-man-bitter and overly defensive of what can indeed by the stymying bureaucracies of the left.

This is a shame, because I’m supportive of the student cause, and I’m impressed both by the tactical innovation shown, and by the way in which some links are being forged with a nascent wider resistance to the government.  When I visited the UCL Occupation a few weeks ago, my overriding impression was of a group of people who actually had a pretty good grasp of the wider context, and it seemed to me that they listened to Alex Callenicos (I just happened to be there when he spoke), as he lectured them on the links between the assault on tuition fees and the wider neoliberal projects, with polite ‘heard it all before’ disdain.

But it would also be remiss of me not to speak about the very real dangers I think lie ahead for the movement – a movement which, as I’ve noted, takes May 1968 as its benchmark, but seems happy at this stage to overlook the fact that the May 1968 movement did not in fact bring any lasting benefit.

Indeed, as David Harvey argues convincingly, the almost Hayekian aspiration to individual freedoms, did much to open the door to 1980s neoliberalism. And as I’ve argued, it was the spirit of ’68, when imported to the UK in the 1970s and early ’80s, which created the conditions for the short-term gains, but long-term losses of the New Urban Left.

In his magnanimous call for the trade union movement to unite with the ‘magnificent student movement’, Len McCluskey opens the door to a real engagement between the working class (at least the unionized segment of it) and student militancy.  This is a good thing, but it must be a two way engagement, based on respect; if the union movement is to be expected to get behind the students, then surely the union movement can expect support from the students.

In subsequent posts I’ll be getting into quite some detail about how student movement might identify legitimate and tactically appropriate targets for the kinds of protest at which they have shown themselves to be so adept in recent weeks.  This won’t of course be the whole range of possible actions, as I’ll be limiting myself to areas where I have a proper understanding of the issues and opportunities (e.g. local government and the NHS).

In the meantime, though, it would be good to see the same kind of expression of relative humility as Len McCluskey has expressed on behalf of the traditional trade union movement, also expressed by some of the de facto spokespeople of the student movement (whether or not they are actually students).

It may be a salutary reminder to those spokespeople that no-one I’ve spoken to in the last three weeks in my non-university, working class area, is particularly aware of the radical new student movement, and the idea that it is likely to change people’s lives for the better would be greeted with, at the best, a wry smile or comment. 

It is easy to get into a cycle of self-reinforcing hype about how important the student uprisings have been but, impressive though the actions have been, they have involved only a tiny percentage of the overall school/student population, and have gone largely unnoticed as a ‘social force’, as opposed to a bit of bother on the streets of London.  Indeed, as reflected  in this autobiographical piece at Latte Labour, many student activists may have been surprised at the lack of genuine interest in their activities shown my family members this Christmas.

If mutual respect between the current movement and ‘traditional’ working class structures and the accompanying necessary humility does not develop, however, history does show that the current movement, far from creating the revolutionary change that many involved now seek, may ultimately end up as a call for a vapid liberalism which fails to deal with the class inequalities that lie at the heart of all the social injustices now being committed by our Coalition government.

Against Sectarianism from a Labour Perspective: A Rant

December 27, 2010 4 comments

A couple of moments ago, Wes Streeting, who is a Labour Councillor in Redbridge, said this in a tweet:

“Not sure it’s very ‘Tony’ but surely we should support Labour’s most electorally successful leader and PM having a statue?”

Statue aside (in his words, “am I bothered”) it is so easy for some people; we’ll support our tribe come what may, and that’s that (no doubt you’ve heard the argument before; we should support Blair/Mandelson as they bring in the votes, forgetting the price the party has had to pay for that experiment). Only for anyone in the Labour Party who really cares about it, and are politically committed to boot, this will not do. Surely a nodding dog who promised everything to everyone (like Barack Obama at the start of his term) would be more electorally successful, but the Labour Party is a political party, historically it has been a political machine and a socialist one as well. While it’s trying to please everyone it is pleasing nobody; Blair may have won his pathetic game against his contemporaries in the Commons, he may have smiled at the correct moments in a PR attempt to woo the heartstrings of the electorate, but he had no political fire in his belly to win the argument for socialism (in fact, by the end I’m sure he’d rather do anything else) and therefore we in the Labour Party should not “support” him. No way.

Yesterday I played a game that my Grandad received for Christmas. One of the questions raised – aimed at a certain generation – was: “should it be absolutely right for a person to fight for their country over anything else?” I was the elephant in the room, among mostly ex-service people (my parents and grandparents included) who said no – but I stand by my answer; today more than ever nation is a tribe that can serve only as sentimental value, ideas and convictions is a dish best served political, and in an age of postmodern disdain for ideas that can guide your uttermost convictions, it is the task of the left today to fight against that current – nationalism and tribalism were bad for politics in generations previous (obviously I justify British presence in WWII, but Churchill was an imperialist, it’s an old point, unpopular and often disavowed, but it’s true) and are bad today.

But who today are really to blame? Reading the above may lead you to think I’m not myself slightly tribal to a political party, but in many ways I am, but not in the sort of way damaging to my political convictions. My own brand of Labour Party tribalism means that I think TonyBlair was a monster – and it’s because I care about the party so much that I can say this. Those who send messages, such as the one above, are more damaging to the party than they realise.

Who I blame for the rightwards trajectory of the political party I am a member of is not necessarily those rightist figures themselves – it is young members of Trotskyite splinter parties like the Socialist Workers Party (born out of the IS, and founded as the SWP in 1977). In the days during the militancy period in the 80s, people were thrown out in a Kinnock, McCarthy-esque, early New Labour drive to rid the party of socialist ideas – history denialism. There were two elements to emerge; an element who embraced the sectarianism of the left who created the far left pressure groups we know awkwardly selling papers today, and then Grantite-entryists who as best as possible worked inside the Labour Party with the intention of bringing socialists together. Younger generations inside those parties don’t face the same problems; for them the Labour Party is sinking ship composed of capitalists and warmongers. However, these people have less fire in their bellies than the right wing of the Labour Party whose socialism has died with the size of their mortgages.

While sectarian factions choose not to touch the Labour Party with bargepoles, so the right of the party become vindicated in their place, and with the slow death of New Labour, and the sloppiness of Ed Miliband, now is the time to work inside and alongside the party, not against it. Owing to the constitution of the small far left parties, and their continual relevance among young socialists as opposed to working inside the longest existing, and historically the most idea rich socialist party in the UK – the Labour Party – they are by their very nature sectarian, and therefore it is justified to shut the door on their personal vindications to the Labour right wing, while offering a place to them if they wanted, and sharing ideas where possible (like the Labour Representative Committee do with smaller parties).

Vince Cable: Instinct vs Intellect

December 23, 2010 5 comments

There’s something to the Take That song I heard on the radio just last night, which goes “They say nothing / Deny everything / And make counter-accusations”, referring to “Kings and Queens and Presidents / Ministers of Governments”. Perhaps from Take That it’s just a catchy line – I doubt Robbie Williams has had a serious political thought since he was sixteen.

But the whole song, entitled “Kidz” seems almost custom-built for a video of the recent violence between police and students in London, as a result of the Conservative-Lap Dog coalition attempt to finally demolish whatever vestiges of equity remain in the education system. Everything fits if you just add in Vince Cable-and-assorted-others who got nailed in the Telegraph sting to fit the lines quoted above.

Cable has come out to condemn the Telegraph for demonstrating that the Lib-Dems are inveterate liars, saying one thing in public and another thing in private. His rationale is that the poor showing of the MPs who fell victim to the sting threatens the constituency-MP link. One wonders what state he thinks that link is in when MPs habitually lie to their constituents. Just a thought.

It is some indication of the stage I’ve reached that part of me wants Vince Cable’s head on a plate. Literally.

There is something righteous and eminently admirable about someone who takes up his position honestly and defends it rationally. This cannot be said about the Lib-Dems who have been exposed by this little sting. The worst of them were prepared to court privilege and position by saying nothing in public whilst expressing misgivings in private that would endear them to those facing the business end of this government.

So kill them all. What would we miss, exactly?

Of course the majority of me is governed by intellect and not instinct. I value human life. I also appreciate that these people aren’t entirely responsible for their actions – they are fallible individuals placed in a system which is organised from the top down, with the Prime Minister and his coterie wielding immense patronage, and to that extent it is the anti-democratic system which is fault.

There’s also the part of me which doesn’t want to simply disregard the bourgeois-democratic system as so many turkeys turning up to vote for Christmas and sees instead that these people were elected, however flawed the system. If people cared enough, they could vote for someone else, whatever inertia is lent to such change by other elements of the political system.

What pains me the most is the faux self-righteousness evinced (geddit?) by Cable in his attack on journalists who actually did their job for a change and showed up the penchant of certain MPs to act completely different in government and in private. It is reminiscent of the position taken by some MPs when their expenses came under intense scrutiny and I can’t help but feel that it results from a sense of entitlement.

Do these people believe they have some god-given right to govern, and that what is expedient for them must ipso facto be the right thing to do?

Meanwhile there are people who feel they have to riot and burn to have notice taken of them. Is it then too much to suggest that these two elements are directly related to each other, or born from the same root cause?

In lieu of a sustainable livestock law

December 21, 2010 1 comment

Rob Flello, MP for Stoke-on-Trent South, failed to get his sustainable livestock bill through Parliament on 15 November, which would have allowed farmers to swap imported soy animal feed for home-grown alternatives. Dependency on imported crop is unsustainable for the protection of the planet, which has near unanimity among politicians and business leaders today, yet opposition to the bill focused on its attempt to forge new regulation on an issue already being addressed by the food industry.

According to Pits n Pots news in Stoke on Trent, the bill enjoyed support from some 55,000 people, Friends of the Earth, and had the backing of 176 MPs, but in the end only managed to secure 62 votes – with some pointing out that many MPs needed to stay in their constituencies that day for Armistice Day Services.

Nevertheless, the failure of the bill to be passed does not spell doom. During the bill debate held in the House of Commons on 12 November, the more thoughtful Conservative opposition noted the work by many individuals and organisations helping to decrease dependency on imported crop and save rainforests in South America.

Tony Baldry for example, the MP for North Oxfordshire and as he refers to himself, the last surviving Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the House of Commons, recognises the benefits of increasing British livestock production, however he is unimpressed with how much “red tape” the bill required.

Like Flello, Baldry wants British reliance on imported soy to decrease in order to lower the nation’s carbon footprint. Additionally he would like Britain to address the problem of chronic poverty in developing nations caused by livestock asset loss (such as losing the benefits of mixed farming methods, livestock consumption of waste products, pest control, fertiliser and food production) however he is confident the industry can bring about the changes itself.

Jim Paice, the Minister of State for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) noted in the debate that the Dairy Supply Chain Forum’s Milk Roadmap is a good example of where producers, processors and retailers come together and commit to common goals on environmental stewardship, nutrient planning, and recycled plastic milk bottles among other concerns of the day. He reminded MPs that the beef and sheep sectors are also working towards sustainability measures.

While well meaning in their criticisms, they forget that this law was not created to undercut good work taking place, but to ensure mechanisms are in place to stop unsustainable farming and to drive out wrongdoers. The reason the bill enjoyed so much support from organisations as diverse as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, National Heart Forum, and Compassion in World Farming is not in the hope of frustrating self-directed sustainable measures, but to counter unsustainable ones.

A legal framework to combat reliance on soy – which two thirds of all manufactured food products in the UK contain – grown in South American plantations would begin to reduce the amount of rainforest being converted into farmland. Though livestock is not the only sector where soy reliance exists, measures to incentivise the maximisation of local production have not gone far enough; the bill would’ve made a significant difference to local production while ensuring other nations keep more of their produce.

Other criticisms suggested that the bill would place a ban on large dairies, reduce meat and dairy in people’s diets, and set trade barriers on imported animal feed. However if true, this will be the case even if sustainability measures are taken in ways described by Tory opposition to the bill, at least with the first two.

If local production of milk and soy is increased, it will be precisely this, and not cheap foreign imports, competing with large dairies to stock shop shelves. Furthermore, in growing more reliant on national livestock farming, whether through law or through accepted milestones mentioned by Jim Paice, the availability of meat and dairy will be dependent upon production supplying to demand – just as usual. The real problem here, much like that of the price disparity between local produce and cheaper imports in general, is whether people will be able to afford good diets while measures are taken to cut import reliance. Organic and locally produced foods can be up to double the price of imported produce. What had been missing from Flello’s bill were measures to make sure consumers could afford to maintain healthy diets while a reduction in imports took place.

Solving this problem would not mean reinventing the wheel. The Healthy Start vouchers for pregnant Mothers or families with one child under four and who are claiming income support, is a government scheme providing free milk, fresh fruit and vegetables, infant formula, and vitamins. Flello should have taken the opportunity to promote widening this scheme so many more families could be entitled to help. In the absence of the law, yet with willing participants in the farming industry eager to meet the goals of the bill, organisations should call on the government to compensate by extending local produce vouchers to those who will be most affected by the rise in their shopping bills.

As for barriers to animal feed, goods inside the EU are not considered imports, so this will only apply to trade countries outside the EU, and for reasons already explained is an appropriate measure to take in promoting sustainability and reducing the nation’s carbon footprint.

The failure of the bill to be passed will make it a lot harder to ensure sustainable practice is carried out, but not impossible. Individuals and organisations need to continue putting pressure on the government to oversee realistic and effective objectives are achieved in the farming industry, while ensuring people can afford a healthy diet alongside changes to production are made for the betterment of the planet is a national must.

The Human Prison: A review of John Berger’s “Meanwhile”

December 18, 2010 Leave a comment

John Berger is an English art critic and cultural theorist known best – if at all – for his 1972 book Ways of Seeing – a work written partly in homage to Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In 2008 Drawbridge Books published an essay of his called, simply, Meanwhile, which attempts to look at our historical age as we live it – an impossible task.

As Berger rightly noticed, descriptions of history need words, words need definitions, definitions need figurative images to serve as landmarks and without landmarks “there is the great human risk of turning in circles”. The landmark, as Berger notes, that he has found, to define our age, “is that of prison.”

The advent of the penitentiary, so Michel Foucault once noted, was linked to industrial production, “its factories and its utilitarian philosophy.” Time has not stood still. And neither has the world – which has come to be defined by capital relations. Thus, Berger notes in today’s era of globalisation, it is not industrial, but financial capital which has informed the logic of criminality and imprisonment. The utilitarianism of the pentientiary, of which Berger mediates, put specially selected individuals – criminals – under surveillance, while the dawn of new financial instruments and global logics of capital have emerged at the same time as surveying us all – hence prison being the landmark that defines our age. We are all imprisoned.

As Guy Debord, French Situationist writer, once noticed, via the Swiss urbanist and architect Le Corbusier, “commuting time … is a surplus labor which correspondingly reduces the amount of “free” time”. A mere modernist pseudo-problem in hindsight. In the dystopian, postmodernist, neo-liberal, late capitalist world imagined by Berger, the worker never enjoys free time, owing to finite free space – since all space is de-centralised financial capital, locked into a consumerist Arcadia. While “[s]peculative financial transactions add up, each day, to 1,300 billion dollars” as Berger points out, “[t]he prison is now as large as the planet and its allotted zones vary and can be termed worksite, refugee camp, shopping mall, periphery, ghetto, office block, favela, suburb. What is essential is that those incarcerated in these zones are fellow prisoners.”

Berger obviously foresees drab things for the immigrant worker. In an American context, he ponders upon the criminalisation of the Mexican worker, but of course it is not overseen the neoliberal agenda of the global oil industry – unable to be properly contained by any major government or power, and cynically, never being in that power’s interests. However, the faddish crux of neoliberalism has possibly made Berger cautious not to speak wildly on the green agenda. Marxist writers specifically in the wake (or shadow) of Frederic Jameson such as Terry Eagleton or Alex Callinicos have all picked up upon the ruinous corporate exploitation of natural resources, and indeed nature; but the more eagle eyed writer like John Gray – still steeped in enough cynicism – notices that out of the green agenda is a market as well as a set of life-saving moral predicates. On this very basis, it is not out of the reach of conglomerates to “green up” – faddishness, to say the least, is a necessary and almost obligatory component of late capitalism. The deal which capitalism, and its state sanctioned protectors, have been unable yet to settle is how to cope with human flight when vast areas of land, and indeed whole countries, start to become uninhabitable and undernourished owing to global warming. The oil business, it would seem, is designing its own type of worker, who Berger believes neoliberalism has rewritten as “hidden criminal” – that is a criminal as a consequence of natural catastrophe and illegal immigration.

The prison which Berger has designated as our current lot is actually free of indoctrination, but authorities will do their best to misinform. Being tuned in to new technologies, cyberspace is a means with which (mis)information is channelled in order that indoctrination is rendered quite pointless. But here, forgets Berger, is a space to subordinate that misinformation. While our only power online may be to apprehend information when its too late – consider for example the realisation, tonight in fact, that the US has the power to close down a global payment system, with disastrous effects – knowledge is power. Wikileaks, if it has achieved nothing else, has shown itself to be locked in a power struggle – this does not spell the dawn of a new hegemony, from the bottom up, but at least frames the struggle as equals at war, whereas before the powerless were expected to fend off the advances of the powerful. Wikileaks is a gamechanger; but what we now realise about the game, is that the powerless could gain power without actually subordinating the existing status quo – something hitherto overlooked, not understated.

Freedom and liberty however is separate from power entirely, and it seems as though Berger is far more willing to accept that in our prison we can be free. As he notes “[f]or prisoners, small visible signs of nature’s continuity have always been, and still are, a covert encouragement”. This can simply be read as a question of contrast; small changes mean more to the prisoner than massive changes do to he who is free. So given that the issue with our historic place, our prison, is the lack of free space, we must forge such a space free from the trappings of capitalism. The problem some will have with this is the same problem many have with Naomi Klein’s books – she seems to be happy and content with the communalist existence of space subordinate to capitalism, which already still renders capitalism existent. In fact within the faculties of late capitalism, or postmodernist capitalism, such communalism is actively encouraged, since subordination is commodifiable. It almost seems as if there is no hope. Berger’s essay concludes by saying: “[l]iberty is slowly being founded not outside but in the depths of the prison”. It sounds like the conclusion of so many disillusioned voices post-Cold War; it’s almost impossible not to feel its ferocity.

Categories: General Politics, Marxism

So-called left wing unity and the Spanish Civil War

December 17, 2010 5 comments

By some accounts Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi has blamed “English anarchists” for the Europe-wide discontent, while he addressed Italy’s Senate yesterday. It’s doubtful he is referring specifically to a small number of die hard Kroptkinites or even try hard “black flaggers” whose only knowledge of anarchism is through the lyrics of the Dead Kennedy’s. Who I suspect he is referring to is the student movement itself – proof, if any were needed, that their organisation and mobilisation is starting to put the willies up the establishment.

Much to its credit, the movement has been largely self-motivated, dealing with operations in small collectives. One of the consequences of this has been a widening separation between the National Union of Students leadership – under Aaron Porter – and the wider anti-cuts student movement in general. As far as effectiveness is concerned, whether or not Porter has publicly backed the students has not been a problem. However where there have been problems is in Porter’s “dithering” as to whether student occupations can rely on him for his support – which would make a difference to student representatives when present in a court of law – his inability to properly condemn heavy handed police tactics and whether legal aid is readily available to them.

In a comment I left at the Liberal Conspiracy blog yesterday, some people were quick to remind me just how expensive such a promise on legal aid would be – which it is hard to disagree with. However it was not me who promised it. If the disparity between what the NUS can afford and how much legal costs are is so high, why would someone, presumably in a position to know both amounts, make a promise like that. The efforts by many students to drive Porter out is based not upon a far leftist instinct to sectarianism, but on the question of leadership competence – which it looks increasingly as though Porter is lacking in (for a wry take on Porter’s failing leadership do take a look at Latte Labour blog).

One reason to oppose this ousting attempt is in faithfulness to something called “left unity” – brought to the fore recently by Sunny Hundal. In his piece on the “plot” to pass a no-confidence motion against Porter, he cites four reasons to oppose such attempts taking place: 1) It’s not a sensible move strategically at a time when the movement as a whole needs to be united, so as to be more effective; 2) it’s too early, particularly given that only a small proportion of students have taken part in an occupation; 3) the leadership is not actually getting in the way of the students wanting to take direct action; 4) if the no-confidence motion fails then it has only served to cause tension.

I’ve already taken into consideration the third point above, the second point doesn’t seem true within the ranks of the mobilised student movements involved, or previously involved, in university occupations, for whom the time for precise and dedicated action is now, and the need for adequate leadership is vital, and to point number four, the same could be said about any attempt – this certainly is no way in which to judge whether to act or not; as the American poet and Spanish Republican supporter Archibald MacLeish once said: “The man who refuses to defend his convictions, for fear he may defend them in the wrong company, has no convictions.”

As of Hundal’s first point, we get this age old adage “left unity”. But what does that actually mean? And how can we be certain unity on the left is not slightly arbitrary?

To explore this, what better subject is there than the Spanish Civil War. It has been said that “The Spanish Revolution is an object lesson, in the negative, of the need to forge revolutionary workers parties of the Bolshevik type.” The reason this could be said by a Spartacist front is because for them the Spanish Civil War was destined to fail on the grounds that the main left wing group (or the one considered principally most broad) were too willing to flirt with right wing workers and peasantry unions as well as bourgeois capitalist party systems in Catalonia. The origins of the POUM (Partido Obrero Unificación Marxista) – to whom George Orwell was joined when he fought in the war – already passed through phases of splinters and cells before properly coming to fruition. Andres Nin – who was murdered on the 22nd June 1937 by Stalinists – originally fell out with Leon Trotsky for opposing the move for the ICE (Communist Left of Spain), affiliated with the Trotsky founded ILO (International Left Opposition), to become entryists in the Spanish Socialist Youth, instead desiring to unite with the BOC (Workers and Peasants Bloc – considered on the right wing of the Communists). Eventually Nin founded the POUM, after which he was accused by Trotsky of “veer[ing] between reform and revolution” (it has also been stated that Nin curbed the revolutionary subjectivity of the workers in the POUM – whose fault it was not that they had such a lousy leader).

The actors in the Spanish Civil War knew who it was they wanted to keep from power – the mess of anti-Communists, Fascists and anti-Masonic, anti-Semitic Catholics who composed the Falange founded in 1933 by José Antonio Primo de Rivera – but what they wanted to achieve in the event of a victory was quite unsure. This issue had been dealt in a particularly diplomatic way between anarchists and Bolsheviks. As Trotsky himself had said on 17 December 1937 in a work called Lesson of Spain: The Last Warning, the anarchist workers joined on the Bolshevik road to revolution, but opposed the goals. The problems became far worse when questions started to arise as to whether this was a civil war at all or a revolution? Most groups involved agreed that defeating the fascists was the most pressing task. But even in the programme of the POUM the steps post-victory were towards a dictatorship of the proletariat – demonstrating it’s avowedly Leninist position. This didn’t sit particularly easy with the Stalinists, for whom worker power is a dangerous tool. It’s hardly surprising that many Stalinists, as well as Stalin himself, were to be considered counter-revolutionary, but it is slightly more surprising that the POUM were, and still are, themselves considered counter-revolutionary by cells of Trostkyites, Fifth Internationalists and anarchists.

Orwell fled as the in-fighting between Stalinists and Trostkyites took a turn towards extreme violence and loss of life (he was actually shot in the neck by some Communists). In spite of this Orwell chose to focus on the so-called Spanish character in his account of the war, Homage to Catalonia, as the reason why the Republicans did not succeed. The foremost scholar of the period Professor Paul Preston criticised Orwell for his lazy analysis of the disorganised Spaniard, instead looking towards other factors which explain why the Republicans couldn’t get the better of the enemy. One possible reason is that they spent too much time fighting themselves. However this may have been a necessary evil; after all if they hadn’t argued the toss about what post-victory looked like then, it would have been necessary to do it during the revolutionary period – whereby the infighting would’ve rendered their governance weak.

Actors in the civil war against Franco included PSUC (Catalonia United Socialist Party); FAI (Iberian Anarchist Federation); POUM; CNT (Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo) as well as anarchists, Communists, Socialists, Reformists, Liberals and everything in between in Barcelona. It is possible to gather these groups to a common purpose, but for a common goal it’s not possible, nor desirable (as a Socialist, I feel absolutely no need to want to bargain with anarchists for example). Stalinists were ideologically geared towards ruining the efforts of those actors, be that through in-fighting or providing gash weaponry from the USSR (it was Trotsky who accused Nin of being too hostile towards the Soviets, though had Trotsky listened to Nin, Stalinsim wouldn’t have been as relevant as it was to the war effort, and both men may have survived death at Stalin’s hands – another of history’s ironies), but real problems had already entered the consciousness’ of all involved – how was left unity possible when “the left” has never been linked to a set of coherent ideas/strategy? Why is it that it seems quite natural to call for unity on the left, when in fact for most of the time many of what counts for left wing ideas are in conflict with one another (something Sunny Hundal must realise, since a lot of his criticism has been directed at what he calls the “far left” who still are, whether we like it or not, on the left).

To draw this back to the original argument, about students wanting to see the back of Aaron Porter, and Sunny Hundal’s (frequent) call for left unity, first of all their call does not represent in-fighting, it has to do with the competence of their union leader. As for left unity, inasmuch as you can sit people down as diverse as anarchists and liberals in the debate against fees, it’s foreseeable that we can agree to a common enemy, but ridiculous to suggest aims and goals can be settled between these people. The problem in the Spanish Civil War among left wing actors was that post-victory apprehensions seeped through prematurely – but perhaps that was inevitable. Anyone who believes the problem with the students today is of left unity is wrong, but perhaps such a concept is a myth anyway.


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