Friday, August 31, 2007

Katrina's victims still paying the price

Two years ago, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Today, many of its people are still suffering. They are the victims of government bureaucracy, racism, corruption and indifference. A report by the Institute for Southern Studies catalogues the shocking conditions faced by the poor of the city, who were overwhelmingly the hurricane’s victims.

On September 15, 2005, President Bush declared to the nation in a televised speech from New Orleans: “I also offer this pledge of the American people: Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives.” Yet two years later, miles of the Gulf Coast are still devastated, and tens of thousands of Katrina victims remain in limbo. Many Gulf residents are running out of hope. The report shows how:

  • over 80,000 people are still living in “temporary” trailers, and 31,000 are still receiving federal housing assistance
  • Louisiana’s programme to assist homeowners has been crippled by delays and mismanagement, and it now faces a shortfall of as much as $5 billion
  • about half of those displaced by Katrina and Rita were renters, and rent costs have jumped as much as 70% across the Gulf Coast
  • of the more than 82,000 rental units destroyed by Katrina and Rita, only 33,000 are on track to be rebuilt
  • the federal and city authorities want to tear down four of the city’s largest public housing complexes and replace them with mixed-income housing with less room for the poor
  • the Bush administration gave $24 million to support that city’s charter schools
    while failing to support traditional public schools
  • thousands of homeowners and businesses were denied insurance coverage after the storms, largely due to confusing rules about what should be covered
  • there are 100,000 fewer jobs available in New Orleans today than before the 2005 storms
  • recovery workers have faced abuse and fraud by their employers; the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance alone has recovered for employees over $1 million in stolen wages
  • African-American workers point to a pattern of exclusion from rebuilding jobs
  • the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has spent only 20% of the $8.4 billion allocated for New Orleans levee repair
  • recent analysis found that most city neighbourhoods today are as at as great a risk of destruction from flooding as they were pre-Katrina
  • testing has found dangerous levels of heavy metals and other contaminants in floodwater sediments, with lead readings in some spots two-thirds higher than levels deemed safe

The institute interviewed a wide range of community leaders and groups and concludes: “Gulf Coast leaders express outrage when Washington officials claim to have spent enormous sums of money on hurricane relief and recovery—over $116 billion, according to the Bush administration — when so little money has gotten to those most in need. The fact is, the $116 billion figure is misleading. Most of that was for emergency relief, with less than a third aimed at long-term rebuilding needs. Even worse, less than half of the long-term rebuilding money allocated has been spent.”

Katrina was a disaster waiting to happen. All the evidence suggests that the hurricane picked up power from seas that were warmer than usual as a result of climate change. Meanwhile, the federal emergency agency FEMA had been swallowed up by the Department of Homeland Security as the spurious “war on terror” - along with the invasion of Iraq - took precedence. A planning exercise conducted by FEMA in 2004 suggested that the region was woefully unprepared for a disaster that might cause significant loss of life, particularly if the levees failed in New Orleans. But its findings were ditched because budgets had been cut.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Profit mono-culture food threat

Transnational corporations, seeking profitable solutions to a post-oil world, are driving a change of land use that will outstrip all previous agricultural revolutions. It will bring billions of acres of land into new mono-cultures, pushing the planet’s water and soil resources beyond their limit. If allowed to continue, it will further intensify social inequality, hunger and global warming and inevitably lead to wars over land and water. The plans made by the US, China, India and the EU to create 15% of their energy needs from bio-fuels, have created a gadarene rush for profits across the globe. Food crops such as maize, sugar cane, palm oil and oil seed rape, instead of feeding the world’s growing population, are being switched to ethanol production to run cars. US farmers expect to sell 20% of the maize crop for ethanol this year.

The Indian government plans 35m acres (140,000 sq km) of bio-fuel crops and Brazil as much as 300m acres (1.2m sq km). Indonesia plans to increase palm oil production from 16m acres (64,000 sq km) now to 65m acres (260,000 sq km) in 2025. Much of it will be grown on recently-deforested land. Nowhere is the transformation going to be greater than in Southern Africa where there is much greater political and financial support for bio-fuel production than there ever was for food for people to eat. As much as 1bn acres (4m sq km) of land could be converted to bio-fuels and China, Brazil, and EU nations are investing in irrigation, cultivation technologies and production.

All of these activities will intensify carbon emissions. Soil that is currently lying fallow, as scrub, bush or jungle, acts as a carbon sink. Bringing it into production means it will start emitting carbon dioxide instead. Irrigating the new crops will deplete water resources. Sugar cane in Brazil evaporates approximately 2200 litres for every litre of ethanol produced. The kinds of intensive growing planned can only be achieved by the application of nitrates, increasing the level of these in soil and water. African communities currently relying on lake fishing face starvation as stocks die off. Aerial spraying of weed killer will threaten an area’s existing subsistence agriculture. And yet, all of these reckless developments are likely to be listed under the Kyoto protocol’s clean development mechanism. This is currently being changed to speed up the approval process for industrialised countries to fund bio-fuel projects in Africa to offset their own emissions targets.

Already world food prices are rising steeply because of a combination of poor harvests resulting from climate change and the sale of food crops for bio-fuel. The UN World Food Programme says the price of food aid increased 20% in just a year. Food prices in India have risen 11% in a year, in South Africa by nearly 17%, and China was forced to halt all new planting of corn for ethanol after staple foods such as pork soared by 42% last year. In the US, where nearly 40 million people are below the official poverty line, the Department of Agriculture recently predicted a 10% rise in the price of chicken. The prices of bread, beef, eggs and milk rose 7.5 % in July, the highest monthly rise in 25 years.

Only global capitalism, with its mono-culture of profit, could create a situation where the government-sanctioned response to dealing with climate change is a series of corporate-driven measures that will actually intensify emissions and at the same time threaten millions more people with hunger. Ending the corporate control of resources worldwide has to be the priority in order to create the conditions for a sustainable future.

Penny Cole
AWTW environment editor

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Targeting young people

The shooting last week of 11-year-old Rhys Jones has become a signal for the Conservative leader David Cameron to talk about “anarchy in the UK”, while another Tory Simon Heffer blames “welfarism” and “Marxism” for the present ills of society. But the essential underlying cause of youth disenfranchisement and estrangement are ignored by all the major parties in their search for “law-and-order” votes.

New Labour wants yet more curbs on young people. This is despite the fact that there are now around 70,000 school-age children entering the youth justice system each year while the number of young women sentenced has doubled since New Labour came to power in 1997. The age of criminal responsibility was brought down to 10 from 14, four years below the age in most of Europe. The “tough on crime” approach adopted by successive Tory home secretaries and continued with a vengeance by New Labour has been disastrous. It is obvious that Asbos, curfews, citizenship courses and longer sentencing have worsened the problem.

The tragic murder of Rhys Jones has led to much soul searching. Some see the causes in a breakdown of authority, a decline or lack of morals, bad parenting, as well as the punitive approach adopted by the legal system. Writers like Angela Neustatter have pointed to the failure of the “tough on crime” approach in cutting crime and the sterling work done by those who have reject punishment as the only way to deal with desperately alienated young people. She correctly refers to a “disenfranchising of a part of society”

But the underlying cause is no great secret. Working class communities have suffered a sea-change. The Thatcher epoch drove on the de-industrialisation of Britain and the destruction of countless jobs and associated communities. New Labour has continued this process, encouraging a get-rich-quick society that has benefited some groups and excluded many, many more sections of the community. In working class areas, skilled and respected jobs in shipbuilding, steel, mining and engineering have been replaced for a few by work in call centres and the service industries. Much of the lowest paid, unskilled work cleaning, catering and agricultural work has gone to super-exploited migrants. There are now 1.2 million young people who are not in employment, education or training. In addition union agreements today only cover 30% of workers, with the rest of the working class having no such protection and little job security.

Learning a skill or a trade once gave young people, especially boys, the chance to develop an identity and a feeling that they were part of a class and a society where they had a role to fulfil. All that has flown through the window. For many the only form of escape is to join the armed forces, who set up their recruiting offices in areas of the high unemployment. For those who could not make the switch to the digital society or those who refuse to be paid under the minimum wage, there is little to aspire to. No wonder many – and not only the young - have turned to drinking, drug abuse and fighting as a form of escape. As one analyst, Paul Kivel, has written: “…in a dog-eats-dog culture few will get there. Hence they [young people] become cynical. At some point many come to realise that the odds are stacked against them… Many become bitter, more cynical and angry at a system that does not deliver on its promises to them.”

Add to that the flooding of many communities with cheap drugs from marijuana, to crack cocaine and heroin, a punitive attitude towards young people, a culture in which success is measured by bling in the form of celebrity, expensive houses, cars and clothing, and you have the explosive cocktail that we see around us.

Corinna Lotz
AWTW secretary

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Opposing the new EU treaty

The gathering storm over the new European Union treaty, focused on the growing demands for a referendum, raises deep issues about the nation-state and its place in the globalised market economy. At the heart of the proposed treaty is the further development of the EU as a regional bloc better able to compete in increasingly tough capitalist market conditions. This in any case is what the EU has been doing for some time, compelling member countries, for example, to open up industries and services to competition and ruling out hidden state subsidies. The British government, under both Tories and New Labour, has gone faster than the rest of EU in imposing what some call the neo-liberal agenda of free markets and a flexible labour force. Central to this is the continuing opt-out from the clauses which set out a minimum framework of social rights for employees. In fact, one of Blair’s last acts as prime minister was to ensure that this was carried over into the proposed new treaty and his successor is in full agreement with this approach.

So one strand of opposition to the new treaty comes from the trade unions, led by Bob Crow of the RMT rail workers and Paul Kenny, leader of the GMB. Crow says: “Whatever you call the EU Reform Treaty, it contains the same anti-democratic mix that was in the constitution supposedly killed off by French and Dutch votes in 2005. It is the back-door constitution which would still transform the EU into a state, and transfer power to an unelected EU government. For working people it would be a disaster, further institutionalising the mis-named economic ‘liberalisation’, forcing more privatisation of public services and abolishing vetoes over transport and a host of other areas.” Kenny says GMB “members are sick and tired of being treated as second class citizens in Europe. If these rights are good enough for French, German and Spanish workers then they should be good enough to apply to UK workers too”. Both unions have tabled resolutions against the treaty at next month’s TUC Congress.

Another strand of opposition comes from the Tory right-wing, led by the Daily Telegraph. This is a nationalist, anti-European trend that is based on days long gone when there was such a thing as “British capitalism” powerful enough to defend its own interests. The global point of view comes from the Financial Times, which yesterday declared: “Most generals avoid fighting the last war. The motley band calling for a referendum in Britain on the European Union’s constitutional treaty has failed to learn this.” The paper of global rather than national big business claimed that their ultimate goal was “either withdrawal or a do-nothing Union” and that neither “serves the national interest”.

The fact is that the British ruling elites have had to surrender large measure of political and economic sovereignty in the last 30 years, not just to the EU but to supra-national bodies like the World Trade Organisation. This is one of the main consequences of the corporate-driven globalisation process, which Gordon Brown in particular has embraced wholeheartedly and driven forward. The trade unions are right to oppose the new treaty and to join New Labour MPs demanding a referendum. But to distinguish themselves from Little Englanders, union leaders have to go further. Even a refomed British state – which itself is a highly unlikely prospect - would have little control over economic and financial processes that transcend borders and state bodies like central banks in their operation. In opposition to the corporate-dominated EU, unions have to adopt a perspective of a democratic alternative to the EU, based on shared common ownership of the region’s resources and new political structures that reflect the aspirations of the disenfranchised majority.

Paul Feldman, communications editor
A World to Win

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Friday, August 24, 2007

Middle East war danger grows

The failure of the US occupation in Iraq carries with it the threat of a pre-emptive war in the Middle East sponsored by Washington and launched with the support of the Israeli government. Evidence is mounting of a desperate, cornered White House that is not prepared to quit Iraq with its tail between its legs. In the past few weeks, president Bush has stoked up the tension in the region. The State Department recently placed Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRG) on a list of what Washington claims are terrorist groups. This is despite the fact that the IRG are part of Iran’s state forces and not some freelance group (which leaves other countries free to designate, for example, the US Marines a terrorist force for their atrocities in Iraq). Bush has always reserved the “right” of the US military to attack terror targets and the fact the IRG are located in Iran means a strike against them would produce an immediate response from Teheran. The US might then use this as a pretext for attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities.

All this is linked to the growing crisis in Iraq, where Bush and his generals have publicly criticised prime minister Nouri al-Maliki for failing to unite the country and improve security in the wake of the deployment of thousands more US troops. Leaving aside the preposterous nature of this accusation, coming as it does from an occupying army, these are warning signs that the US government has plans to overthrow the Maliki government. Yesterday, a national intelligence estimate, the consensus view of the CIA and 15 other American intelligence agencies, predicted that the prospects for the Iraqi government are "precarious", and expressed fears of a surprise attack by insurgents comparable to the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam.

The real motive for the tirade against Maliki is his government’s increasingly close links with Iran and Syria, which have included an official visit to Damascus. Both Teheran and Damascus see an opportunity to play a role in a future Iraq split along ethnic and religious lines as a result of the US invasion. Maliki said his government would “pay no attention”, warning: “We care for our people and our constitution and can find friends elsewhere.” Meanwhile, Bush’s remarks linking the US’s defeat in Vietnam in 1975 to the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia have stoked up the flames even further. His analogy, although preposterous, is a sign that he does not intend to be the president who lost the war in Iraq.

He can always count on his friends in the Israeli government, who are the beneficiaries of a subsidised arms deal announced by Washington in July. This coincides with rising tensions between Israel and Syria, who went to war in 1967. Israel captured the Golan Heights and still holds them. Tensions are so high that recently senior officials from two Arab states passed on messages to Israel that Syria is not planning an attack in the coming months. Syria is itself carrying through an extensive rearmament programme while the Israeli army is carrying out training exercises on the Golan Heights. Syria has purchased sophisticated anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles from Russia as part of a $900m deal. Some of these have reportedly been bought with Iranian funds. The Syrians have also been putting in place extensive defence fortifications along the southern and northern part of the Golan Heights. According to reports in the Israeli press, Syria has deployed 200 of its most sophisticated surface-to-air missiles close to its border with Israel. The head of Israeli military intelligence, was reported as saying that there was a danger of a "miscalculation" scenario, where tensions between the two sides spiral out of control. If the White House has anything to do with it, this is precisely what the plan is.

Paul Feldman, communications editor
A World to Win

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

UN throws in towel on climate change

The United Nations is preparing to throw in the towel on achieving further cuts in the emission of greenhouse gases by the world’s industralised nations. Instead, it plans to rely on already discredited carbon trading and offsetting schemes. The cat was let out of the bag by the UN official leading negotiations for a new convention to follow on from the Kyoto treaty, which ends in 2012. He believes that rich nations should be absolved from the need to cut emission if they pay developing countries to do it on their behalf. In fact they should be able to buy their way out of 100% of their responsibilities.

Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, says: "We have been reducing emissions and making energy use more efficient in industrialised countries for a long time, so it is quite expensive in these nations to reduce emissions any more.
But in developing nations, less has been done to reduce emissions and less has been done to address energy efficiency." So, de Boer observed, "it actually becomes economically quite attractive for a company, for example in the UK, that has a target to achieve this goal by reducing emissions in China".

This policy shift is a major step back from Kyoto which requires industrialised nations to reduce the majority of emissions themselves, rather than resorting to carbon trading or offsetting to reach their targets. Even the Stern Review for the New Labour government states that all developed nations will have to make emissions cuts of at least 60%-90%, with many developing world countries allowed only a modest increase or a small decrease. And Stern clearly says that these figures “do not incorporate international emissions trading”. In other words, emissions trading is viewed as an add-on to real reductions.

The De Boer approach is already built into the Climate Change Bill before parliament. This insists that emission reductions purchased overseas may be counted towards the UK’s targets. The government claims that this “ensures emission reductions can be achieved in the most cost effective way, recognising the potential for investing in low carbon technologies abroad as well as action within the UK to reduce the UK’s overall carbon footprint”.

It fell to the Commons environmental audit committee to point out that in order for a country to have surplus carbon credits to sell, it must first be overachieving its emissions targets. The committee asked: “Given the challenges that this might entail as targets become tougher, this raises questions over the extent to which the global supply of such credits will in the future be able to meet demand. The government has yet explicitly to address this uncertainty in the extent to which the UK can rely on emissions trading in order to meet its targets.” The committee added that it was concerned that this approach “might foster a false sense of complacency about the progress and policies required to decarbonise the UK”.

The truth is not as complicated as the committee makes out. Behind all the manoeuvring around the Climate Bill and the buying and selling of carbon “credits”, there is mounting evidence that globally, capitalism does not have the capacity or the will to tackle climate change. All it can offer is a façade of action, behind which governments, and now the UN, give wholehearted support to business as usual for the corporations and the richer nations. The case for offsetting capitalism itself with not-for-profit alternatives and a real democratic political system, is stronger than ever.

Penny Cole, environment editor
A World to Win

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

September 11 - the real conspiracy

The real conspiracy over the September 11 attacks on the United States involves a determination by the authorities to cover up a report into the mismanagement, lack of analysis, bungling and infighting between the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency. That much is clear from the small section of the report by the inspector of the CIA, John L. Helgerson that was declassified last night. His report was the first to recommend that top agency officials face a disciplinary review. The full report by the inspector general, totalling several hundred pages, remains classified. The executive summary that was released found neither “a single point of failure” nor a “silver bullet” that would have allowed the CIA to prevent the attacks. But the report did conclude that the agency’s resources devoted to counter-terrorism had been mismanaged, and that some had been redirected away from Al Qaeda toward other parts of the agency’s clandestine service. It cited “failures to implement and manage important processes, to follow through with operations, and to properly share and analyse critical data”.

Drawn up in June 2005, Helgerson accuses the CIA's top officials, including the then director, George Tenet, of failure to devise a strategic plan in advance of the attacks. The report castigates CIA officers who "did not discharge their responsibilities in a satisfactory manner". The report reveals that information on the 19 hijackers was widely reviewed before 9/11 but was not followed up. "That so many individuals failed to act in this case reflects a systematic breakdown. There was no coherent, functioning watch-listing programme," the summary says. As many as 60 people within the CIA read a cable referring to two of the hijackers before the event, yet the information was not shared with the parts of the organisation able to do anything about it. Helgerson even recommended an inquiry into whether disciplinary action should follow. This was ruled out by the CIA’s director at the time.

Far from being the all-powerful agency it is made out to be, the CIA has a history of being unable to see the wood for the trees. For example, it failed to detect the following historical events and processes: the Hungarian Revolution of 1956; the invasion of Suez by Britain, France and Israel the same year; the overthrow of the Shah of Persia in 1979; the invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR later that year and the Soviet reform movement led by Gorbachev in the late 1980s. Notoriously, it funded and sponsored Al Qaeda to help the US in Afghanistan and was then unable to spot that Osama bin Laden had redirected the jihad towards the United States itself.

The weakness and incompetence of the American state revealed by the report contrasts with those who claim that September 11 was itself a conspiracy by the authorities, which was then used as a justification for the “war on terror” and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. There are, of course, many unanswered questions about the attacks but none point to an act of self-destruction by a desperate US government. In a more general sense, the conspiracy theorists imply that the state is always one step ahead of everyone else, creating history in order to control it. The real story is more prosaic. We are, after all, talking about a state that couldn’t even deliver bottled water to the residents of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and whose armies in Iraq are tired, dishevelled and all but defeated.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

A World to Win

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Putin rehabilitates Stalin

There are few families in Russia today untouched by the horrors of the Stalin period. Nearly everyone has a story to tell about a relative who suffered in the forced collectivisation and the purges that consumed up to 20 million people. So when Vladimir Putin, the ex-KGB man who is now president of Russia, sanctions a rewriting of history that eulogises Stalin and glosses over his regime’s crimes, it amounts to a warning to opponents of today’s Kremlin. Several critics of Putin’s government have met with untimely deaths, including the campaigning journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Only yesterday, a member of an opposition group led by the former chess champion Garry Kasparov was released from a psychiatric clinic after being held against her will for 46 days. Larisa Arap, 48, was forcibly taken to hospital in Murmansk after exposing alleged abuse of children in a local psychiatric hospital.

New laws give the Putin government sweeping powers over the content of school textbooks and a series of “patriotic” history books are set to be unveiled in the new school year. A handbook for teachers calls Stalin a "contradictory" figure, and states that while some people consider him evil, others recognise him as a "hero" for his role in the Great Patriotic War (the Second World War) and his territorial expansion. Stalin is described as “the most successful leader of the USSR". The book skates over the purges, declaring: “Political repression was used to mobilise not only rank-and-file citizens but also the ruling elite." Putin himself admitted that "problematic pages in our history exist" but "we have less than some countries”. He compared the Great Terror of 1937, when 700,000 people were murdered in a purge by Stalin's secret police, to the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

This sickening reverence for Stalin because he allegedly made the country strong is a complete travesty of history and an insult to all those who died or suffered at the hands of his regime. In fact, the Stalinists left the Soviet Union at the mercy of Nazi Germany and their policies added to the build-up of World War II. The cream of the Red Army was purged in 1937 and a non-aggression pact struck with Hitler lulled the USSR into a false sense of security. When Nazi Germany invaded in June 1941, no one was more surprised than Stalin to the extent that he refused to believe the reports and prevented border troops from opening fire until it was too late. "In the official state view of history, the main event of the 20th century is the victory in the Second World War," said Boris Dubin, an expert at the Levada Centre think tank and polling agency. "The Holocaust is hardly taught at all in Russia, nor is the history of the gulag system. The rehabilitation of Stalin is connected to the emphasis on the war victory."

Far from being a great “war leader”, Stalin was compelled to hand control over military affairs to generals like Zhukov because of political paralysis in the Kremlin. In the end, the Soviet Union defeated Nazi Germany in spite of and not because of Stalin’s “leadership”. Putin is building his own authoritarian state, this time based on the capitalist oligarchs that now own Russia as a result of the counter-revolution of the early 1990s. But thanks to the perestroika and glasnost period of the Gorbachev period, the truth about the Stalinist regime is available to the Russian people. Putin’s attempt to rewrite the last 90 years of his country’s turbulent history to suit himself is, like the Stalinist regime itself, doomed to failure.

Paul Feldman, communications editor
A World to Win

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Composting the state

The Camp for Climate Action at Heathrow brought activists, local communities and others opposed to the building of a new runway at the airport, together in an inspiring, united way. The political support of local MP John McDonnell was also important, especially in dealing with the state. This enclave of democracy and self-organisation surrounded by surveillance cameras and massive searchlights, police horses and vans was a shining example of self-sacrifice and utopianism. The camp was well prepared and organised and did not allow itself to be derailed by innumerable provocations from police and media. An extremely high level of understanding about the crisis was self-evident, with many scientists and students of ecology present.

A united front of a different kind confronted the camp – a combination of the New Labour government, the global corporate owners of the airport and the forces of the state. These forces remain unmoved by the protest. The government is not much concerned about the communities who are under the flight path of the proposed new runway. Expansion of the airport is deemed an economic necessity – and that’s what counts for this government. Ferrovial, the construction giant that owns the privatised British Airports Authority, worked closely with thousands of police (and police spies) to blockade the climate camp and protect their property.

Which brings us to the nub of the fight against climate chaos – how can we tackle the source of global warming if we are denied access to the means to do so? There is no doubt that the science, technology and organisational skills exist that, if deployed in a positive way, could open the way to a sustainable future. But at present these resources remain in the hands of the global corporations like Ferrovial and are deployed primarily in the interests of profit. Endorsing this set-up are governments like New Labour, who insist that carbon emission reduction policies do not interfere with the market economy and, as a consequence, make no impact. Finally, the institutions of the state like the police, using a wide range of powers including anti-terror laws, will use force to protect private property and their political masters.

Direct action serves to highlight some of these problems but because it is restricted to a series of short-term protests leaves unanswered the strategic challenge. This revolves around the pressing need to transform the economy from one run along capitalist lines to a system that is founded on a co-operative, not-for-profit basis offering maximum protection to eco-systems. It is a mistake to think you can achieve these aims without addressing the issue of the state and state power. Capitalism rules through the state and especially since globalisation, the state is pretty much immune to pressure and protest.

To compost capitalism, to recycle corporate wealth, resources, technology, science and skills, we have to compost the state as well. The movement against climate chaos, and other groups fighting for a sustainable, non-capitalist future, have to direct their energies towards transforming the state. In place of the fraud of the parliamentary system, we should campaign for forms of direct democracy at local, regional and national level. We should extend the principles of democracy beyond the vote to include self-management and control of workplaces and public bodies. This would mean democratic ownership and control of all the principal economic, financial and technology resources by communities, producers and consumers. Do this and we really will have composted capitalism.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

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Friday, August 17, 2007

'In the eye of a cyclone'

For those who believe that some sort of regulatory control of global capitalism would curb corporate and financial power, the events of the last few weeks are salutary. The international financial system generated by globalisation since the 1970s patently transcends the powers of nation states, as the failure of the central banks to turn the tide amply testifies. Yesterday, America's Federal Reserve Bank pumped another $17 billion into the financial system – all to no avail. Stocks and shares continued to plummet throughout the world. London's FTSE 100 ended the day down 4.1% or 250 points at 5,859. It has not closed below 6,000 since October last year and City traders predict it will fall further still. “Blood is hitting the streets, everyone seems to be panicking, and there’s reason to panic,” said Malaysian asset manager Patrick Chang. “We don’t known when it’s going to end. Liquidity is drying up.” Another fund manager said: “We’re in the eye of a cyclone.”

Over the past week, the Fed has injected a total of $88,000 million (£44.3bn), while the European Central Bank has put up 211bn euros (£142.6bn). But the funds at the disposal of the central banks are tiny compared with the astronomical sums sloshing around the financial system. Taking just the derivatives markets alone – which trade existing contracts through options, futures and even swaptions. By the end of last year, options had reached $286,000 billion – about six times the value of the global gross product. Then there are the foreign exchange markets. In April 2006, overall turnover on the world’s exchanges averaged $2.9 trillion (a thousand billion) a DAY! Now, of course, these levels of speculation are apparently fine when everyone is paying their debts and meeting their financial obligations. Panic sets in when a section of the system defaults. And that’s what the sub-prime crisis located in the US is all about – people unable to pay their mortgages to the tune of $300 billion. And don’t think this is just an American problem. Northern Rock, a British mortgage lender and bank, is reportedly in some difficulties because it holds sub-prime debt.

On the eve of the current crisis, Anthony Hilton, the financial editor of The Evening Standard in London, described the Bank of England as being “in office but not in power”, he added: “It and the other central banks around the world… are having to come to terms with the fact that these days the influence lies elsewhere, in the hands of the investment banks and their similarly driven colleagues in the world financial centres. They have in effect hijacked the world financial system and with it the global economy.” Finance, he explained, used to aid the efficient functioning of what “we used quaintly to call the real economy”. Now it no longer needs a real economy to function, Hilton added, “because it has gone off into hyperspace, operating in a virtual world, using the derivative markets to create its own virtual money”. As to ideas of regulation, don’t even think about it. Hilton concludes: “How do you constrain an industry that is essentially intangible? As big a shock as any coming crash might be the realisation that there are no longer any easy regulatory answers.” Meanwhile, the liquidity crisis in Hilton’s “virtual world” of finance is beginning to take a toll in the real world, threatening jobs, pensions and bringing with it the prospect of a global economic slump.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The global pyramid scam

After a week of attempts by central banks to resuscitate global financial markets by injecting cash, the contagion continues to spread around the world, driving stock markets sharply lower. As is the fate of all pyramid-selling scams, the global economic structures built upon an addiction to credit and its inseparable opposite debt, are unwinding fast with devastating impact. Adding to the current crisis is the fact that financial institutions are now scared of each other. No one really knows the level of exposure each investment and commercial bank holds. As a result, inter-bank trading has ground to a halt because no one wants to be left holding the debt hand grenade when the music stops.

Central banks have been trying to restore confidence, with the Bank of Japan announcing on Thursday that it would inject a further 400bn yen ($3.4bn) into its banking system. The US Federal Reserve made another $7bn (£3.5bn) of reserves available to the banking system on Wednesday. The Fed has injected $71bn into the system since 9 August. However, such moves, along with comments by US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson that the economy was strong enough to withstand the turmoil, have done little to appease investors.

The current market volatility has been triggered by the US sub-prime mortgage sector, which offers higher-risk loans to people with a poor credit history. This particular bubble has burst as a result of higher US interest rates combined with falling house prices. The number of people defaulting on their loans has soared. While some estimates say $300bn in loans could be at risk, the eventual scale of the problem is thought to be much greater. The original loans were sold on as debt by mortgage companies to other institutions, who in turn have loaned out money against the expected income. Yesterday the situation worsened after Merrill Lynch told its clients to sell any shares they own in the country's largest mortgage lender, Countrywide Financial. It warned that Countrywide could face bankruptcy if the availability of credit in the market gets any worse and there were market rumours that the lender had failed to raise some money it needed.

No less devastating are the extremes of weather which are linked to climate change, itself a product of over-producing global, capitalist corporations whose products are largely bought on credit. Events in and around Wall Street on, August 8th, little reported in British media, provide a striking illustration of the intimate connection between the turmoil in the markets and wild climate. Hours before the financial storm broke, the Financial Times investment editor was commenting that futures and stock markets “reflect a belief that crisis will be averted. Both are vulnerable to bad news from the credit market. Once Wall Streeters calm down after their commute from hell, that will again be their greatest concern”. That morning a fierce morning storm disrupted transport throughout much of the region and unleashed a rare and destructive tornado that whipped the area with winds of up to 135 miles an hour, dropping 3 inches of rain on the New York metropolitan area in about an hour. Whilst there has so far been little attention to the direct impact of the Brooklyn tornado on the next day’s panic trading across the bridge in Wall Street, both are clear signs of a system in crisis, even meltdown.

Gerry Gold, economics editor

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Canada joins terror witch-hunt

As the police use anti-terror laws to harass climate protesters at the Heathrow climate camp, governments around the world are making copycat versions of Britain’s detention and secret trials powers. Canada is not usually viewed as an authoritarian state, but Stephen Harper’s right-wing government, elected in January 2006, is pushing through legislation based closely on the provisions enacted into British law under New Labour. A human rights organisation is warning of “secret trials and a binge of government secrecy” set for the autumn parliamentary session in Canada using Britain’s “special advocates” system as a model.

A constitutional conflict broke out in Canada at the end of February as the Supreme Court ruled, in a unanimous 9-0 decision, that the country’s notorious secret hearing procedure was unconstitutional and violated the country’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The clash between the Supreme Court and the government closely paralleled that in Britain, where an 8-1 decision by the House of Lords in December 2004 ruled that police could not detain foreign suspects indefinitely without bringing them to trial.

A Kafkaesque security certificate process has been condemned as “fundamentally flawed and unfair” because it is secret, with no procedural safeguards and the person named in the certificate is not informed of the case against them. The security certificates allow the authorities to detain and remove a person considered to be a security threat. Signed by the solicitor-general and the minister of citizenship and immigration, and endorsed by a judge of the Federal Court, they have been issued 28 times since 1978. The Federal Court of Canada, which is appointed by the government, is now trying to legitimise secret trials by having special advocates, or “security-cleared” lawyers who will be able to hear secret evidence in the absence of the accused and their lawyers.

Tensions are building because although the Supreme Court ruled against the certificate procedure, it suspended its judgment from taking effect for a year, thereby giving Parliament time to write a new law. The government-appointed Federal Courts Administration Service has been given an August 31 deadline to turn in a report about the so-called security certificates, which, is already shaping the process before anything is tabled in Parliament.

The Federal Court has commissioned an immigration lawyer and a university professor to produce a study on the British special advocates system in an attempt to legitimise secret trials. Matthew Behrens, writing for the Campaign Against Secret Trials, has denounced the “special advocates” system. He has shown that it is in fact a special advocate for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Behrens points to British barrister Ian Macdonald QC’s statement before the Canadian Parliament last February in which he explained why he resigned as a British special advocate: “I was giving legitimacy to a system… completely contrary to all kinds of traditions of a) fairness and b) the fact that ever since Magna Carta, we don’t imprison people unless they’ve had a proper trial.”

Behrens says that Canada’s role as part of a global national security system in which the rights of certain targeted populations are sacrificed in the nebulous name of security. “The rights being violated, needless to say, are basic human rights that apply to all people, regardless of citizenship status.,” he argues, in an in-depth analysis circulated by Homes Not Bombs, the Toronto chapter of Action for Social Change. He says that claims by CSIS and RCMP that threats cannot be revealed to the public are comparable to tactics used by anti-Communist Senator Joe McCarthy during the red-baiting 1950s. The CSIS has claimed that animal rights activists, First Nation “extremists”, elements of the anti-globalisation movement and Sunni Muslims are threats to Canada’s national security. Sounds like a story we hear every day in Britain, doesn’t it?

Corinna Lotz, AWTW secretary

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Targeting the climate camp

The lurid media headlines aimed at the climate action camp, combined with systematic police harassment, just about sum up the state of Britain today. Anything that disturbs the status quo and challenges corporate assumptions about the environment or anything else is regarded as intolerable and dangerous. The state will crackdown to block any serious protest action if necessary, and you wouldn’t put it past the police to concoct an excuse to shut the camp down. For example, the Daily Telegraph today declares that “Heathrow protesters 'may stage bomb hoax'”. The source of their story? Why, none other than a spokesperson for the British Airports Authority, which has already tried to ban people from attending the camp. "We are particularly concerned they [anarchists] will try to disguise themselves as passengers or members of our staff, because the protesters have already evaded our officers on two previous occasions," a spokespeson said.

No doubt police will now stop and search people entering the camp site to make sure they are not hiding “smart clothes” which could then be used to disguise themselves as “ordinary people”! The same BAA, which is owned by the global construction firm Ferrovial, has already suggested that the camp could be a perfect cover for terrorists to mount an attack. On that logic, any gathering of more than three people could be considered dangerous, anywhere in Britain. What about football crowds, or people going to a cricket match, or to a race meeting? Surely terrorists could buy themselves a club shirt, carry a picnic hamper for Lord’s or buy a morning suit to attend Ascot and then blow themselves up. The only answer is for people to attend sporting and other events in their underwear – or to be banned from assembling in large numbers either to enjoy themselves or take part in a protest.

While the police state is being put together under the sponsorship of the New Labour government, the show must go on. Downing Street has warned that "action that would disrupt the running of Heathrow would be unacceptable”. So what is actually acceptable? The enforced expansion of Heathrow, which will destroy communities living under the flight path of a new runway, and add to climate change is fine. So too is covering up the government’s inability to meet European Union targets on renewable energy. According to reports, government officials have secretly briefed ministers that Britain has no hope of getting remotely near the new renewable energy target that Tony Blair signed up to in the spring - and have suggested that they find ways of getting out of it. Officials within the former Department of Trade and Industry have admitted that under current policies, Britain would miss the EU's 2020 target of 20% energy from renewables by a long way. And they suggest that "statistical interpretations of the target" be used rather than new ways to reach it. At least the government is consistent. There was a target for cutting carbon dioxide by 20% by 2010 in the 1997 manifesto. This was later referred to not as a “target” but as “domestic goal we will move towards”. The mounting media and state attacks on the climate camp are aimed at silencing those who want the truth to come out – and who, more importantly, want to do something about it.

Paul Feldman, AWTW communications editor

Monday, August 13, 2007

A universe of fantasy finance

The turmoil in the world’s financial and stock markets that erupted at the end of last week prompted a panic release of funds into the system from the leading central banks. But their actions only add to the underlying cause of this crisis. The European Central Bank, the US Federal Reserve and the Banks of Japan and Australia stepped in to try to stem the massive loss of confidence in the share markets and the financial system as a whole. The intention was to loosen the seizure that had cut the flow of funds between banks, which are needed to keep the global economy operating. The hundreds of billions of dollars pumped into the system was the biggest such intervention since the crisis following the 9/11 terror attacks.

Some financial observers, as well as the International Monetary Fund, are claiming that last week’s events, whilst serious, do not greatly damage the fundamentals and will not impede continuing global growth. But this time the problem is not only a liquidity crisis - a sudden shortage of available cash known as a credit crunch. No, this time, the problem is greatly compounded by a crisis of insolvency. People can’t pay their debts. The three decades or so of continuing growth, albeit interrupted by many crises, has been made possible by low interest rates set by central banks, easy and easier credit, and the virtual elimination of control or regulation on the operation of financial institutions.

All of this was necessary to fund the profit-led capital expansion which offered a way out of the political upheavals of the late 1960s, the US defeat in Vietnam, and a wave of action centred on Paris in 1968, which threatened to undermine the capitalist system. A watershed in this process was the decision 36 years ago this week – on 15 August 1971 – to separate the dollar from gold, thus freeing the currency from any nominal connection with real value. Globalising corporations emerged able to optimise opportunities worldwide and dictate terms to national governments. In widening and exploiting inequality they greatly expanded production. Consumers, needed to buy the products, were seduced by marketing and then enslaved by unsustainable debt. To keep the whole thing growing required a universe of fantasy finance - apparently with a life of its own - expanding far faster than the real economy. Every day in the year to April 2006, in the foreign currency markets around 60 times the value of a whole year’s global production changed hands. Hardly a shortage of cash.

In particular, it is the globalisation of unpayable debt in the US housing market as well as other forms of debt, packaged into hedge funds and leveraged buy-out deals which has destabilised the entire system and which sparked the latest crisis. The world’s largest publicly quoted hedge fund manager, Man, lost nearly a quarter of its market value last month, with the worst two-day drop in its history before the weekend. The current crisis began to emerge from the murky depths of unsecured “sub-prime” mortgage lending. Sub-prime simply means borrowers with a poor credit history – usually low-wage earners who have trouble repaying their debts. Wall Street, burnt by its latest bonfire of the vanities, is now describing loans to risky borrowers as “toxic waste”.

The contagion is certain to spread as there are very many over-borrowed, over-stretched corporations - not just financial institutions - as well as the millions upon millions of individuals who find themselves in trouble in every country. The British economy is particularly vulnerable, as it is now dominated by financial services and speculation to the exclusion of manufacture and production. Some observers are comparing the situation to 1929, when the Wall Street crash led to a world-wide slump. But today, the world financial system is far more integrated as a result of globalisation and the consequences will be far more devastating for international capitalism.

Gerry Gold, economics editor

Friday, August 10, 2007

Iraqi unions threaten 'mutiny' over oil law

The struggle over future control of Iraq’s oil is coming to a head, with parliament deeply divided over American proposals designed to benefit the major corporations and the country’s trade unionists vowing to resist any foreign takeover. It adds to the deepening crisis engulfing the US-UK four-year occupation of Iraq. Among Americans, sentiment against the Iraq war is at its highest level ever at 76% while the so-called surge of US troops has made no difference in terms of stability and security. Behind the invasion was the dream of privatising Iraq’s state-owned oil industry and opening up the world’s third largest reserves to the global market. Like all the other fantasies concocted by the White House, the notion of easy control of Iraq’s oil has also come up against harsh reality.

Despite attempts to keep the parliamentary process hidden from view, more and more Iraqis are coming to realise the purpose behind a law drafted in Washington before the invasion even took place. The long-sought "hydrocarbons framework" law would give Big Oil virtually unrestricted access to 80% of Iraq’s reserves. According to leaked documents, Iraq stands to lose billions of dollars in oil revenue. Meanwhile, a parallel law carving up the country’s oil revenues between the different regions will add to the sectarian and ethnic divisions that have appeared since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Trade unionists are the most powerful group opposing the carve-up. Subhi al-Badri, head of the Iraqi Federation of Union Councils, said recently: “This law cancels the great achievements of the Iraq people. If the Iraqi Parliament approves this law, we will resort to mutiny. This law is a bomb that may kill everyone. Iraqi oil does not belong to any certain side. It belongs to all future generations." Oil workers staged a three-day strike last month, defying arrests by armed troops, and union president Hassan Jumaa Awaad, has warned: “If those calling for production-sharing agreements insist on acting against the will of Iraqis, we say to them that history will not forgive those who play recklessly with wealth and destiny of a people and that the curse of heaven and the fury of Iraqis will not leave them.”

A recent poll commissioned by a coalition of NGOs and other groups found that a clear majority Iraqis from all ethnic groups would prefer "Iraq's oil to be developed and produced by Iraqi state-owned companies" over foreign companies. Most Iraqis are, however, in the dark about the laws, in yet another example of US-style “democracy”. More than three out of four Iraqis - including nine of 10 Sunni Arabs - say "the level of information provided by the Iraqi government on this law" was not adequate for them to "feel informed" about the issue.

Far from being a great display of US-driven global corporate power and reach, the invasion and occupation of Iraq has turned into a great debacle. It is coming to represent the end of empire rather than the beginning of a new one, the place where corporate-driven globalisation ran into the sands.

Paul Feldman, AWTW communications editor

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Postal leaders duck the fight

Postal workers start another series of actions today which are scheduled to last on and off for two weeks. But there is a real danger that the leaders of the Communication Workers Union are frittering away the energy and determination of their members instead of mounting a serious challenge to Royal Mail’s job cuts and below-inflation pay rise. There are no signs that Billy Hayes, the general secretary and his deputy, Dave Ward, are willing to mobilise the union’s membership in a sustained way. One-off, one-day, regional, sectional strikes have the effect of minimising the impact on the mail service, which then serves to weaken the morale of the membership. The Royal Mail employers sense this and have decided to introduce the very “modernisation” plans the strike was aimed at stopping without reference or agreement with the CWU in a week’s time. This, says the union, will involve significant changes, including later delivery start times and permanent reductions in customer services. But the CWU leaders’ response was hardly impressive. “The imposition represents an unnecessary attack on postal workers’ jobs, pay and conditions,” a statement said. They may be “unnecessary” but the unilateral changes in working conditions are happening.

If the CWU leaders were really intent on opposing the massive job cuts that are coming up the line, they would have prepared the membership for all-out, indefinite action and sought the support of other trade unionists like London firefighters facing similar attacks. Instead, Ward pleaded yesterday with the Royal Mail to pull back, saying: “Despite Royal Mail’s stated position and with the prospect of imposed change, the union has made a fresh offer for a period of calm. We have made yet another offer to Allan Leighton and Adam Crozier [chairman and chief executive Royal Mail] to call off the next planned strikes. All Royal Mail have to do is take a step back and engage in meaningful negotiations.” The employers– with the support of government - have made their position clear: In a period of global competition, the Royal Mail has to cut costs and “modernise” in order secure a position in an open market. In other words, despite still being state owned, the Royal Mail is behaving like any other major corporation when it comes to costs and revenue.

The CWU leaders don’t want to face this reality because of their close, even cosy, connections with the wretched New Labour government, together with their inability to offer a perspective for winning the dispute. CWU members have to call their leaders to account before it is too late and before some half-baked deal is forced down their throats. The union has to answer the challenge of global capitalist competition with an alternative strategy, which stresses the importance of a not-for-profit public service and acknowledges that the business-friendly New Labour government is part of the problem not a solution. All-out, indefinite action could be linked to a campaign to secure wider public support as well as sympathetic action by trade unionists, including other sections of the CWU, whether this is unlawful or not under current anti-union laws. All links with New Labour would be cut as a first step to opening a discussion about alternatives to the political status quo under which all the major parties are committed to corporate-driven globalisation. If Hayes and Ward are not prepared to go down this road, they should step aside for others who are committed to the fight and to the future of the CWU as a viable organisation.

Paul Feldman, AWTW communications editor

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The sweatshop Olympics

There will be celebrations in China today to mark the one-year countdown to the start of the 2008 Olympic Games. But it will be business as usual for the hundreds of thousands of workers slaving away in factories making products associated with the games. Research into four of the factories supplying goods under licence for the Beijing Olympics has revealed massive labour rights abuses, including child labour, forced overtime, workers being instructed to lie about wages and conditions to outside inspectors, poor health and safety conditions, excessive hours of work and employers falsifying employment records. These are the findings in a report from the International Textile Garment and Leather Workers Federation (ITGLWF) entitled Playfair 2008.

The Beijing Olympics are likely to be the most profitable ever. Adidas paid between $80-100 million for its sponsorship deal. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has signed up 11 main sponsors paying $866m million between them. The official website boasts that Olympic licensing provides successful companies with an opportunity to “gain considerable profit through producing or selling the licensed products” and “enhance brand image and increase market share and sales”. The sale of the mascot alone will bring in more than $300m in profit.

Quite apart from the Olympics, China’s export success is based on paying low wages. Around 250 million Chinese (16.6% of the population), live on less than $1 a day and 700 million (47% of the population), live on less than $2 a day. Chinese workers are not free to form independent trade unions and can only join official organisations that are part of the bureaucracy that rules China on behalf of a corrupt elite.

International brands manufacturing in China claim their “corporate social responsibility” (CSR) policies are the answer. But the CSR audits are in the main meaningless and easily subverted. Neil Kearney, ITGLWF General Secretary, said: “The Olympic Committee must now remedy the abuses that have been uncovered. Child workers must be removed from the workplace and sent to school at the companies’ expense. Workers must be repaid the monies they are owed in respect of underpaid wages and unpaid overtime. And immediate measures must be taken to bring working conditions into line with national legislation and international labour standards, including the payment of the legal minimum wage and respect for laws on working hours.”

But the IOC has consistently rejected all attempts to force it to take responsibility for employment standards for workers employed in Olympic activities. Their sole criteria is to bring in cash to fund the overblown, drugs-polluted, orgy of corporate power the games have become. According to its charter, the goal of the Olympic movement is “to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play”. But the children working in the sweatshops of China are clearly not going to have the chance to experience any of that.

Penny Cole, environment editor

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Painful times for borrowers

Those driven into insolvency as they try to keep a roof over their heads will take little comfort from the knowledge that they are the victims of a crisis that is spreading rapidly throughout the world’s financial markets. More than 100,000 people in the UK will be declared insolvent during 2007. In the second quarter alone 26,596 were added to the total. Many more will be in increasing difficulty as the effects of interest rate rises, and the ending of their period of fixed-rate mortgages bite. A large proportion of these will be the victims of pressure selling of credit by lenders hoping to profit from house prices spiralling as bonus-rich City traders and overseas investors continue to pile in to the buy-to-let market, especially in London.

Secured lending on homes at the end of June 2007 stood at £1,131bn, by far the greater part of total UK personal debt. Housing debt increased 11.2% in the last 12 months – much faster than both overall inflation and earnings, straining the budgets of many households to breaking point. No surprise then that mortgage arrears and repossessions have been increasing. According to the Council of Mortgage Lenders, although relatively low by historical standards, 1,400 properties were repossessed during the first half of 2007, an 18% increase on the second-half of 2006, and an increase of almost 30% on the first-half of 2006.

According to the Financial Services Authority (FSA) the situation is being exacerbated by lenders and mortgage brokers lending irresponsibly to those with a record of debt and credit problems. The FSA expects this kind of lending, known as sub-prime, to increase the level of repossession. Its view is supported by Moneyfacts, the financial data analyst, which has reported that some borrowers with poor credit histories are being asked to pay interest rates of up to 11.35% for a home loan.

Those driven into insolvency as they try to keep a roof over their heads will take little comfort from the knowledge that they are the victims of a crisis that is spreading rapidly throughout the world’s financial markets. The impact of mortgage over-selling which has been ravaging the US for many months is now affecting Asian, Australian and European banks and finance houses including the French giant AXA insurance company, all of which have been involved in lending to the US market.
Share markets declined rapidly last week when Sam Molinari, chief financial officer of Bear Stearns, the investment bank at the centre of the US crisis, compared it to 1998, when hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management collapsed and Russia defaulted on its debt.

Availability of easy credit worldwide has dried up. Lenders have taken fright. The big private equity deals that have dominated headlines over the last year have ceased. With the car market over-supplied, global giant DaimlerChrysler has been trying to offload its Chrysler subsidiary to Cerberus, one of the biggest of the fund managers. But now, Daimler has to supply US$1.5 billion of the debt needed to finance the deal.It’s like having to pay the scrap yard to take your car way, but on a much bigger scale.

Gerry Gold, economics editor

Monday, August 06, 2007

‘We are living in the stone age’

Three headlines from a country in the fourth year of foreign occupation: ‘Armed robots to go to war in Iraq’; ‘Power cuts worsen as grid collapses’; ‘ US soldier sentenced to 110 years’. Three indictments of the American-British invasion of 2003 that has brought untold suffering and misery to the Iraqi people. Puppet governments installed following the removal of Saddam Hussein have no authority and no capacity to unite the country. Instead, Sunni and Shia insurgents, each with their own agenda, have moved Iraq towards sectarian civil war. Millions have fled the country to Syria and Jordan, leaving the country short of professional workers like doctors and teachers.

Now, as the summer heat blasts the country, the power system is unable to cope.

The electricity ministry says that power generation nationally is only meeting half the demand. Four blackouts have hit the country this week. Power supplies in Baghdad are down to just a few hours a day. This has hit the water supply because blackouts have affected pumping and filter stations. Provinces are disconnecting their power supplies from the national grid because they claim it is one-way traffic, adding to the sense of dismemberment of Iraq. Of 17 power lines running into the capital, only two were operational this week. The rest have been sabotaged. One province south of the capital has been without power for three days because in a country with the world’s third largest oil reserves, a 50-megawatt power station in the area has no fuel. Kerbala market stall holder Hazim Obeid, said: "We no longer need television documentaries about the stone age. We are actually living in it.”

But do not worry, the US military is coming to the rescue, or rather its robotic arm is. American forces have deployed robots equipped with automatic weapons in Iraq, the first battlefield use of machines capable of waging war by remote control. The Sword robots are a modified bomb disposal devices. Soldiers operate the robots with a specially modified laptop, complete with joystick controls. The devices are armed machine guns and come with these comforting words from a consultant on the project: “Anytime you utilise technology to take a US service member out of harm’s way, it is worth every penny. These armed robots can be used as a force multiplier to augment an already significant force in the battle space.” The robots have another advantage – they can’t be jailed for the rape and murder of a 14-year old Iraqi and the killing of her family like Private Jesse Spielman was this week. He, of course, is just a pawn in a greater game, where oil and profit are the the goals of the occupation. Many soldiers not yet brutalised by Iraq know this all too well. They understand that companies like Halliburton, once headed by Dick Cheney vice-president and architect of the invasion, are doing nicely. As always, the infantry are fighting someone else’s war.

Paul Feldman, AWTW communications editor

Friday, August 03, 2007

A business friendly climate Bill

The Climate Change Bill is, above all, business friendly. In fact, it is so weak that a Commons committee this week published a damning indictment of the Bill, criticising all of its key proposals and accusing it of incoherence. The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) points out that while the government claims to be committed to actions that will contribute to keeping global temperature rises below 2 degrees centigrade, the targets set out in the Bill – the government is aiming for a 60% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050 - cannot possibly achieve that. As Dr Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre told the EAC: “The scientific evidence is that 60% is a nice idea and helps us to sleep a little bit at night, but it has very little to do with climate change… we need to go well beyond the 60%.”

The EAC also took on board the Tyndall Centre’s point that since CO2 remains in the atmosphere for 100 years, we are paying the price now for past failures. Reduction targets, the committee argued, should be steeper in the early years of the programme, as set out in the Stern review. But the government has no intention of adopting this approach, and it is clear why. The manufacturing employers’ federation in its evidence to the EAC welcomed the fact they are going to be given plenty of time before they have to make serious reductions, and argued that any requirement for steeper cuts should be delayed. So its is not so much incoherence that is the problem as the fact that this is a Climate Change Bill for business. It puts economic competitiveness and fiscal performance ahead of scientific knowledge and ahead of the lives of people in Britain.

For example, it says that targets will not be increased between now and 2050 even if it becomes clear that the measures taken are proving ineffective. They will only be changed if some new technology emerges that will make it easy to achieve greater reductions. And the new “independent” Climate Change Committee that is to be set up to monitor targets will mainly be drawn from business rather than science. As the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds told the EAC: “We are concerned that the first set of skills and experience that are being asked for relates to understanding of pure economics or of impacts on fiscal issues and poverty.” They suggested that perhaps an understanding of environmental issues might also be useful!

Furthermore, the criteria the new committee will be allowed to take into account when they monitor the government’s progress are competitiveness, fiscal impacts, impacts on public borrowing and taxation and so on. The only thing missing from the list is the growing impact of climate change! The EAC report concludes: “It is clear to us that the government will have to introduce more radical policies into its climate change programme very soon if it is to meet even the 2020 target as currently set. Current measures, including those introduced by the recent Energy White Paper, are only projected to get us nearly to the bottom end of 2020 target range – and this at what the Office of Climate Change described to us as ‘the upper end of optimism’.” Believing that this New Labour government is going to take any action to reduce emissions beyond that dictated by the needs of big business – now that’s the upper end of optimism!

Penny Cole, environment editor

Thursday, August 02, 2007

London's firefighters oppose 12-hour day

London’s firefighters are gearing up to resist unilateral changes to their shift system by employers who are determined to impose the government’s cost-cutting “modernisation” agenda on the service. A staggering 98.5% of firefighters are opposed to the plans to compel them to work a system of 12-hour shifts and strike action is a distinct possibility if current negotiations break down. The conflict arises out of the unsatisfactory agreement that the then Fire Brigades Union (FBU) leaders reached to end the 2002-03 pay dispute. This was linked to proposals to alter working conditions in a way that would reduce the effectiveness of the service and undermine working conditions. A series of disputes throughout the country since then has tested the FBU’s resolve. But the major challenge is in London, where there are almost 5,800 firefighters.

London fire employers originally intended to replace the nine-hour day and 15-hour night shifts with the new 12-hour system in April 2006 but backed down in the face of a strong FBU reaction. Now the employers are on the warpath again and the FBU’s London region is preparing the membership for a struggle. A detailed submission in defence of the existing watch patterns of work has gone out to all members, as well as to brigade chiefs. FBU regional secretary Joe MacVeigh says: “If the brigade ignores the wishes of our members, we will have no alternative but to hold a ballot for industrial action, including strike action. We do this reluctantly, but we also do it in the knowledge that we simply cannot stand back and allow the brigade to emasculate our working conditions so flagrantly.” With travel-to-work times increasing because of affordable housing shortages, it is easy to see that a 12 -hour shift starting at 8am would result in a firefighter leaving their home at 6am hours and not returning until 10pm. A sizeable proportion of the workforce would receive less than seven hours rest between day duties, which would effect performance as fatigue sets in.

Undermining the existing watch system will have serious consequences for Londoners, who depend on crews to put their own lives on the line each day to rescue people from fires and crashes, to deal with floods and terror attacks and to educate the community about risk and dangers. Firefighters obviously depend on each other and the FBU states: “Teamwork is vital in emergency situations, where reliance on your colleagues is paramount to ensure that safety is not compromised. The current watch system is based on the principle of teamwork. Individual members within a watch will have unique personalities, experience and qualities that determine both their strengths and weaknesses. Collectively, these attributes are harnessed on a watch, whereby those strengths are capitalised upon and the weaknesses are improved upon, thus resulting in an effective team.” The abolition of the watch system would reduce firefighters to individuals, which is what the employers – who hate and fear the FBU’s collective strength – actually want.

If a dispute breaks out, it will once more bring the FBU into direct conflict with the New Labour government. As the submission points out: “The fire and rescue service is currently experiencing a period of dramatic change, brought about not only by changes in legislation but by over-zealous fire and rescue authorities which have as their central aim the cutting of costs and resources in the name of ‘modernisation’… All too often, modernisation is a euphemism for frontline cuts whilst opening up the service for private sector involvement.. without a proper examination of the long term consequences.”

Paul Feldman, AWTW communications editor

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Conscience and global poverty

If conscience alone could abolish world poverty, it would have happened many times over by now. Countless millions, especially in countries like Britain, have a sense of what is right and wrong. They are deeply concerned about disease, ill health, starvation and low wages in developing countries. They donate, they do voluntary work, they sign petitions, they go on marches, join vigils and pray for the poor of the world. And still the world is one of gross inequalities, at home and abroad. So Gordon Brown’s appeal to the conscience of the world in his “moral alliance” United Nations speech will make not a jot of difference because, unsurprisingly, it ignores the fundamental questions at stake which revolve around corporate power and profit.

Brown said: "I want to summon the greatest coalition of conscience in pursuit of the greatest of causes ... " He said he wanted to mobilise "people power", urging citizens to be "responsible consumers" and "active citizens". The fact that his “wake-up call” immediately won the backing of such progressive figures as George W. Bush and the bosses of 20 global corporations, including Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, tells its own story. They know a good thing when they see one and understand completely that having a conscience will not disturb the bottom line at all. In fact, it might do it some good.

The campaign, to be run through the UN, will be based on a new partnership between governments, the private sector and faith and pressure groups. The corporations and the UN have been travelling this road for some time. At the turn of the century the UN under Kofi Annan created a “global compact” with the major corporations. The UN website devoted to the compact explains: “Through the power of collective action, the Global Compact seeks to promote responsible corporate citizenship so that business can be part of the solution to the challenges of globalisation. In this way, the private sector – in partnership with other social actors – can help realise the secretary-general’s vision: a more sustainable and inclusive global economy.”

Annan may have had a dream in 2000 – in 2007 it resembles a nightmare. The UN’s millennium goals, as Brown had to admit, are as far from realisation as when they were set. The goal of halving infant mortality by 2015 won’t be met, if at all, until 2050, while the target of ensuring primary education for every child by 2015 would at best be achieved by 2100. Brown is clearly concerned lest people around the world for some unknown reason identify the corporations and the UN with broken promises and wants an “emergency” response. But his are just more empty words and semi-religious rhetoric at the expense of the world’s poor.

The fact remains that no amount of conscience will alter the fundamental nature of the causes of global inequalities. They are the outcome of a corporate-driven globalisation process, where the transnationals are in what they might describe as a “win-win situation going forward”. They can wring their hands, adopt a “corporate social responsibility” agenda and even give large sums of money, knowing that their profit-driven power is secure and given cover by the UN and its agencies. Overturning this power in order to allocate and use resources in the service of humanity as a whole is what we have a responsibility to place on the agenda throughout the world.

Paul Feldman, AWTW communications editor