Friday, September 28, 2007

Birth of a nation

The struggle for self-determination in Africa and against corporate exploitation has taken a new, but little known turn. Tuareg nomads from the Sahara joined together last week to announce the foundation of the Tumoujgha Republic. They will go down in history as the first national liberation movement to announce a new state and constitution via an Internet blog. A World to Win welcomes this historic move by the Tuareg to assert their right to existence.

The Tuareg were split up by the creation of five African states – Algeria, Libya, Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso in the post-colonial era. They first rose up against their new masters in the 1960s, in Mali. More recently there have been further rebellions in Mali and also in Niger.

The founding statutes of the Republic of Tumoujgha are based on the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and declarations made by tribal chiefs, going back to 1957, when they refused to become part of the new states created under De Gaulle in the Sahel areas of the Sahara. In a letter to the presidents of Mali, Libya, Niger and Algeria the president of the new republic affirms the Tuaerg right to sovereignty under the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples agreed by the UN on September 13.

A list of points and grievances includes:

  • the non-consultation of the Tuareg nation about becoming part of Mali and Niger
  • the 1963 Adrar revolt which was put down by Algeria and Mali
  • the 1990 Tchintabaraden massacre in which 3,200 Tuareg civilians were massacred
  • the non-recognition of the Tuareg question in the 1991 Niger national conference.

The new constition declares that the Tuareg Tumoujgha Republic is founded on the historic area of the Tuareg nation – two thirds of Niger and half of Mali. Its language is Tamashek and its writing is Tifinagh. The secular republic has at its disposal the Taghd army and its capital is the city of Agadez. It is a democratic state based on federalism with the Blue Book as its founding text.

The move to create the republic has no doubt been encouraged by fierce military campaigns waged against the Niger and Mali governments by the Niger Movement for Justice (NMJ) led by Ibrahim Bahanga, and Asana Baggage, a mutinous Colonel of the Mali Army who led guerrilla actions against the Mali military. Well-organised and heavily armed NMJ fighters, guided by GPS systems and satellite phones, inflicted heavy losses on the Niger army in August and a US military aircraft dropping provisions to Malian troops was damaged by rebels as it was flying over northern Mali, where the government army is confronting Tuareg insurgents.

Yesterday army troops in Mali retook an area in the northeast of the country that was controlled by rebel Tuareg fighters.The US military and 13 African and European countries, including Britain had just completed joint exercises as part of an anti-terrorism programme in the Malian capital, Bamako. The exercises were initiated by the US were part of the “war against terror” under its Trans-Sahara Counter-Terrorism Partnership. But Saharan politics expert Jeremy Keenan has pointed to the deliberate fabrication of a Saharan “Bin Laden” figure.

Despite the Tuareg’s fight for survival in two of the poorest countries in the world, their traditional lands have rich sources of uranium, gold and oil. As more nuclear power stations are being built throughout the world, Niger’s 3,500 tonnes of uranium a year and new exploration permits are handed out, the Tuareg lands are increasingly a target for global corporations. Indian, Canadian and Chinese companies are vying for control of the uranium sector. Meanwhile, uranium dust from mines owned by the French Areva group has contaminated huge areas of grazing land and water used by nomadic people.

See previous article and photos about the Tuareg struggle.

Corinna Lotz
AWTW secretary

Thursday, September 27, 2007

China fears Burma uprising

While the Buddhist monks and people of Burma heroically defy bullets and batons to continue to march against the military junta, no one should be surprised that world leaders sit on their hands and/or offer up crocodile tears. Some, like the Chinese regime, have a lot to lose in Burma – and we’re not just talking about trade in oil, gas and timber. Beijing’s Stalinist rulers in particular are terrified that the mass movement in Burma could easily spread to China itself and unseat the corrupt bureaucracy ruling the country. The Chinese leadership has turned the country into a paradise for the global corporations – and a nightmare for hundreds of millions of workers and peasants. Countless strikes, riots and demonstrations are reported in the official press – so the real picture must be much worse.

A recent report into China’s toy export industry exposes the super-exploitation. The report describes working conditions as “devastatingly brutal”, with long hours, unsafe workplaces and restricted freedom of association – all in “blatant violation of Chinese and international labour law”. Whole batches of toys were recently recalled because they were unsafe and the report blames the transnational corporations for their “single-minded pursuit of ever lower prices” The Hasbro corporation is a major manufacturer in China. Hasbro reported net revenues of $691.4 million for the second quarter of 2007 – up 31% on a year ago and an operating profit for the period of $55.8 million, up a whopping 171% on the same period last year. The reason for soaring profits is self-evident. The report says: “Short-sighted policies drive corporations like Hasbro to turn a blind eye to safety - and to ignore the labour conditions in their supplier factories, as well. Instead of concentrating on improving product safety and workers’ lives, companies spend their energy creating beautiful pamphlets on social responsibility, disputing critical reports and shifting blame.”

During its investigation, China Labour Watch found that workers often worked for a month without a day off, facing the sack they declined “overtime”. Factories illegally impose fines and fees. The resulting wage is well below the official minimum wage for the region of about $92 per month. Raw materials, work equipments, rubbish, unfinished products and finished products are piled up throughout plants, including the emergency exits. The report concludes: “To multinational toy companies, workers are merely tools to use to build their massive profits.”

As for the so-called European Union sanctions against Burma, these are clearly not worth the paper they are written on. New Labour, which merely calls for “restraint” in Burma, is accused by campaigners of conducting business as usual. "The EU sanctions are pathetic: it's as if they've been designed to miss the mark," said Mark Farmaner, acting director of the Burma Campaign UK. "You have no significant trade sanctions at all; there is a limited investment ban for some named state-owned enterprises including a pineapple company, tailors shops and others. The timber and gas sections where the regime earns most of its revenue were exempt... so it's had no impact at all." Over the past three years, British imports in some categories such as seafood, footwear and handbags, have actually risen. Timbmet, a British wood company, which did £3m of business with Burma last year, says it is now pulling out. Director Mike Packer, says: "So far as we are concerned... there's been no approach to timber importers to say the government doesn't support trade with Burma."

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Climate change window closing

World leaders are preparing to abandon whole areas of the planet to climate change. That’s the implication from speeches at the one-day (!) gathering at the United Nations to discuss the impact of global warming and the prospects for a post-Kyoto treaty. On the one side there was UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon who told government leaders and corporate chiefs that “the time for doubt has passed" and that "national action” with “industrialised countries taking the lead” was the way forward. What is actually going to happen was spelled out by Canada’s prime minister Stephen Harper, who said his country’s approach to climate change was “balance” in order to protect – yes, you guessed right - the economy. “We are balancing environmental protections with economic growth," he said.

Harper is set to join President Bush at a US-led meeting of the 16 largest emitters of greenhouse gases scheduled to be held later this week in Washington. Cue Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She told the UN conference that the White House was fully committed to “climate adaptation". Put “balance” and “adaptation” together and you get business as usual for the major capitalist economies while poorer, low-lying coastal areas of Asia, for example, are written off as sea levels rise.

The stark truth is that drastic action would have to start immediately to make any significant impact on climate change. Halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, for example, could only happen if levels were stabilised at roughly 450 parts per million (ppm), according to Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Already, atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas, are approaching 400 ppm. Emissions would need to peak by 2015 and then decline rapidly to reach the 2050 goal. There is no chance of this taking place under present political and economic conditions.

Warning signs are mounting. Paraguay, for example, is experiencing a crippling drought that has led to the worst forest fires in its recorded history, while floods in East Africa are devastating food supplies. Diseases like chikungunya fever, which cripple patients with joint pain, have begun to appear in new areas, such as Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. And with Arctic ice cover shrinking more than ever this past summer, the Inuit say their way of life is disappearing.

A new report by the Worldwatch Institute says the oceans have absorbed about half of the carbon dioxide emitted by humans in the last 200 years. Climate change is altering fish migration routes, pushing up sea levels, intensifying coastal erosion, raising ocean acidity, and interfering with currents that move vital nutrients upward from the deep sea. Vital Signs project director Erik Assadourian admits that the window to prevent catastrophic climate change appears to be closing. Governments are starting to direct their attention to staking their claims in a warming world. “Canada is spending $3 billion to build eight new patrol boats to reinforce its claim over the Arctic waterways. Denmark and Russia are starting to vie for control over the Lomonosov Ridge, where new sources of oil and natural gas could be accessed if the Arctic Circle becomes ice free—fossil fuels that will further exacerbate climate change. These actions assume that a warming world is here,” says Assadourian.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

One Nation, One Party under Our Leader

A serious question: What do you get if you put together a nationalist-patriotic, socially conservative, free market, business-worshipping, authoritarian, religious political leader? Answer: a highly dangerous, heady political cocktail with echoes in 20th century history. Who needs the Tory Party, or even the far-right British National Party when you have the Brown movement? Who needs political opposition of any kind when you have The Party that represents The Nation as well as everyone and everything? Who needs discussion and debate, or the casting and counting of votes when The Leader has already decided everything?

Welcome to New Labour 2007, the movement that has Tories, big business and military gentlemen as members of the government. Celebrate with The Party as it puts an end to nasty, “adversarial”, “divisive” conference politics in the name of Unity and the interests of the British People. Hear its Leader refer to Britain or Britishness no fewer than 71 times in an hour-long speech to The Nation. Stand up and cheer when Our Leader says: “I reach out to all those who work hard and play by the rules, who believe in strong families and a patriotic Britain, who may have supported other parties but who, like me, want to defend and advance British values and our way of life." Feel proud when you are told that in future there will be “British jobs for British workers” and that nasty foreigners who don’t behave will be shown the door (after being sent to detention camps first). Know that those who oppose Our Leader also reject the British Way and face the wrath of The State.

Thankfully, the Bournemouth Rally saw it that way too. How thrilling that those present voted in Stalinist fashion by 85% to put an end to conference resolutions and votes. Why, even the trade unions endorsed a motion to abolish their own role in the conference in exchange for zero, zilch, de nada. Lest we forget, their predecessors had actually set up The Party, then known as Labour, over a century ago. Few dared oppose the move, so important is Unity at this time for Our Nation. One brave soul, John McDonnell MP, rejected the move to create a monolithic Party, suggesting that the last person leaving the hall “turn off the lights please, they will be the lights of democracy”. The only dissenting voice on the floor came from Michael Meacher, who asked: “What is the point of conference if it is merely a talking shop and there is no way we can seriously influence the party leadership and the government into changing course?” There is no point, Michael. So let us hear no more rubbish from the left about reclaiming the party. There is no social democratic, reformist party to reclaim. It has been incorporated lock, stock and barrel into the process of corporate-driven globalisation.

The financier-philanthropist George Soros once said: “Perhaps the greatest threat to freedom and democracy in the world today comes from the formation of unholy alliances between government and business. This is not a new phenomenon. It used to be called fascism…The outward appearances of the democratic process are preserved, but the powers of the state are diverted to the benefit of private interests.” Brown did not quite get round to promising to make the trains run on the time, but the logic is there for all to see. Globalisation has dissolved the old, bourgeois-democratic parliamentary state and with it the parties that subscribed to that process. The alternative to the Brown nightmare has to come through extending democracy beyond the limitations of the decayed parliamentary state. A democratic choice would put people in charge of their workplaces and communities, giving them ownership of economic and financial resources presently misused and abused by the ruling elites. There is no time to lose in building a movement that can realise these aims and objectives.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Beijing the key to Burma protests

All eyes are on how Beijing will react as Burma’s Buddhist monks lead waves of protests against the country’s dictatorship. It is the biggest movement Burma has seen since people rose against the junta in 1988 when 3,000 people were gunned down. Burma’s military junta is utterly dependent on the Chinese regime, which is ruthlessly exploiting the country’s oil and gas reserves. China has sold $2 billion worth of arms to the junta which are used in continuing atrocities against the political opposition as well as ethnic minorities. Beijing’s Stalinist regime is, of course, also deeply involved in propping up the notorious regimes in Zimbabwe and Sudan as it exploits Africa’s resources.

At the weekend the monks were joined by young, pink-robed, shaven-headed nuns as around 20,000 people took part in a march in the former capital Rangoon, often knee-deep in rainwater, calling for an end to the dictatorship. On Saturday, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League for Democracy (NLD) who has been under house arrest for 11 years, emerged for a tearful moment to pray with the 2,000 monks who had made their way to her house. Yesterday, however, the authorities turned back monks from the road leading to her home.

Elsewhere in the country, soldiers and state-backed militia beat up monks in cities like Pakokku, Mandalay, and in Sittwe, where tear gas was fired and arrests were made. The movement, led by a new group of young monks, the Alliance of All Burmese Buddhist Monks, is now a direct challenge to Burma’s military authorities, the State Peace and Development Council (SLORC). A spokesman for the group said they would protect their leaders from arrest.

The present crisis was sparked by an abrupt doubling of petrol and diesel prices on August 15 which triggered protests during which demonstrators and monks were brutally beaten. The anti-junta movement gathered international momentum towards the end of August when actor and comedian Jim Carrey, went on U-tube calling for viewers to join US anti-junta organisations. On September 18, the 19th anniversary of the SLORC military coup, protests were held in 20 countries around the world.

There are presently around 600,000 Internally Displaced People (IDPS) in Burma, with huge refugee camps on its borders in neighbouring Thailand and Laos. A group of US Congressmen is currently calling for a boycott of the 2008 Beijing Olympics “unless the Chinese regime stops engaging in serious human rights abuses against its citizens and stops supporting serious human rights abuses by the governments of Sudan, Burma, North Korea against their citizens”. As the junta spends billions on arms and wallows in luxury, one third of the country’s children are malnourished. People scrabble in the streets of the capital for food handouts from the temples. Humanitarian organisations like Medecins Sans Frontieres and disease-fighting specialists have been forced to leave, with even the Red Cross finding it difficult to operate.

Several Buddhist monks have stated they would not end the marches and demonstrations until the dictatorship is “wiped from the land” and there have been chants saying, “Our uprising must succeed.” If the junta decides to crack down, it may well rely on new helicopters supplied by India, containing British and EU parts, to gun down protesters.

Corinna Lotz
AWTW secretary

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Friday, September 21, 2007

Dollar collapse looms

Northern Rock’s problems are a mere blip by comparison with the crisis now emerging on the other side of the Atlantic, where the fall in the value of the once almighty dollar threatens to bring down not just the American economy but the entire global trading system with it. Ironically, Saudi Arabia, one of America’s staunchest allies, could have started what may become a domino-type collapse of the dollar. The US has relied on foreign funders to finance the gigantic $800 billion annual deficit between exports and imports by investing in American assets. The money markets have also enabled the US government to run a massive budget deficit by showing a willingness to buy what are known as Treasury bonds – effectively lending Washington the money to finance activities like the occupation of Iraq. Without these sources of finance, the United States – which is the world’s most indebted nation – would be bankrupt.

Behind the dollar’s plunge to a 15-year low against other major currencies, including the Euro, is the credit crisis which was itself prompted by the collapse in the US subprime mortgage business. This in turn is depressing property prices in America and Robert Shiller, a Yale university economist, told a US congressional panel this week that he feared “the collapse of home prices might turn out to be the most severe since the Great Depression”. Alan Greenspan, former Federal Reserve chairman, told the Financial Times that double-digit falls in house prices from their peaks would not be surprising. The Congressional committee heard from experts who said a 15% fall in house prices would wipe out $3,000 billion of household wealth.

Within hours of the hearings, the Federal Reserve took panic action and slashed interest rates by 0.5% in an attempt to resuscitate the American economy before it collapsed into recession. For the money markets, as well as those countries like Saudi Arabia loaded down with dollar bills, the rate cut was a signal that perhaps this was the right time to cut and run and the currency’s value plummeted. Historically, the Saudis have linked their currency to the dollar and have always matched US interest rates. Not this time, however. The Saudis’ refusal was taken as a signal that the oil-rich feudal kingdom is preparing to break the dollar currency peg in a move that risks setting off a stampede out of the dollar across the Middle East. As if that wasn’t enough, only last month the Chinese started a concerted campaign of economic threats against the United States, hinting that it may liquidate its vast holding of US treasury bonds if Washington imposes trade sanctions to force a Yuan revaluation.

"This is a very dangerous situation for the dollar," said Hans Redeker, currency chief at BNP Paribas. "Saudi Arabia has $800 billion in their future generation fund, and the entire region has $3,500 billion under management. They face an inflationary threat and do not want to import an interest rate policy set for the recessionary conditions in the United States," he said.

There is also evidence that global investors are shunning the US bond markets. Foreign investors have been gradually pulling out of the long-term US debt markets, leaving the dollar dependent on short-term funding. "This is nothing like the situation in 1998 when the crisis was in Asia, but the US was booming. This time the US itself is the problem," he said. Financier Jim Rogers commented: "If Ben Bernanke [chairman of the Federal Reserve] starts running those printing presses even faster than he's already doing, we are going to have a serious recession. The dollar's going to collapse, the bond market's going to collapse. There's going to be a lot of problems."

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Union turkeys vote for Christmas

Like turkeys voting for Christmas, the trade union leaders have given up their existing voting rights at Labour’s annual conference. Barely a voice was raised as they offered Gordon Brown what even Tony Blair could not achieve – total control of the party machine. In exchange for abandoning rights to have a say in the party they actually founded over 100 years ago the unions received precisely nothing. There was no undertaking to discuss their campaign for more legal rights, no concessions on public sector pay, no offer of a referendum on the new EU constitution. Nothing, absolutely nothing was given in return for what history will show was the final nail in the coffin of the party’s democracy.

Only last week at the TUC, union leaders were making all sorts of “threats” about how they would never accept Brown’s proposals to abolish the 50% vote that the unions commanded at annual conference. A week later and the white flag was run up by the same union bureaucrats. When Labour’s national executive met to consider Brown’s proposals, every single one of the union representatives present voted to abolish their voting power. In a 26-4 vote, the only opposition came from members representing the party’s rank-and-file sections. Trying to put a brave face on their abysmal surrender, Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB, said Brown had promised to review the changes in two years. Wow! They all know that Brown will move swiftly to impose his one-member one-vote system, whereby votes are taken to endorse what has already been decided at the top. Once abolished, the unions’ voting rights will never be restored.

Next week’s conference in Bournemouth will, therefore, be nothing more than a showpiece rally. There will be no votes on anything important and New Labour now looks – and behaves - exactly like the capitalist Democratic Party in the United States. This is consistent with Brown’s vision of a “new politics”, where dissent is considered as intolerable and old-fashioned. In its place comes the new one-party politics where Tories, military figures and big business are welcome in the government without having to be members of New Labour. No wonder that David Owen, one of the key figures in the split inside the Labour Party that helped sustain Thatcher in power, is considering Brown’s invitation to return. After all, Thatcher herself has been to tea at Downing Street to show her admiration for the new prime minister.

No one should underestimate the historic significance of the vote to reduce to zero the power of the trade unions to influence conference decisions. The severing of one of the most important links between trade unionists and Labour is a turning point. Blair always considered that the creation of Labour was an historic “mistake”. Now New Labour has effectively broken free of its own history, its formation by the labour and trade union movement. Its new sponsors are the City financiers and corporate bosses who call the shots on government policy. Yet the union leaders intend to continue to fund capitalist New Labour while it attacks their members’ jobs, wages and pensions. They would do well to remember what actually happens to turkeys at Christmas when their members get wind of this week’s horrific sell-out.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Immigration and the race card

The Liberal Democrats’ call for a selective amnesty for immigrants in Britain without legal rights will have no impact on a government determined to play the race card at every opportunity. It may be “absurd”, as Lib Dem’s Nick Clegg said, to deport an estimated 500,000 “illegals” at £10,000 a time, but then New Labour is that type of government.

Its ever-willing enforcement agencies are meting out increasingly repressive treatment against immigrants and asylum seekers and those who seek to support them. Organisers of a camp being set up this weekend to oppose a planned new detention centre being built at Gatwick Airport have been forced to switch to a new site after overt state harassment. The farmer who had agreed to rent his land suffered such pressure from the police that he pulled out of the agreement with the No Borders organisation.

Ian Bros of No Borders, which campaigns correctly for papers for all migrant workers, said that every time he phoned the farmer, “there would have been yet another police visit. They were consistently trying to paint a nasty picture of the potential camp participants but their priority seemed to be putting pressure on him to sign an agreement with the police to let them on his land during the camp, which he refused to do at our request”. The plan is now to hold the camp near the village of Balcombe, West Sussex between 20-23rd September.

The harassment of farmers providing space for protesters is part of the increasingly ugly atmosphere being stoked up as New Labour and the Tories slug it out for the anti-foreigner vote. Immigration minister Liam Byrne claimed that the introduction of compulsory ID cards would make things tougher for illegal immigrants. He boasted that the Home Office was “now deporting someone every eight minutes and doubling our frontline enforcement resources". Using the language of old-style Toryism, he raised the spectre of “waves of illegal immigration”.

Even as New Labour fans the racist flames, government lies about asylum seekers are being exposed in the courts. Home Secretary Jacqui Smith had to eat humble pie last month when Mr Justice Collins overruled her decision to deport 70 Congolese asylum seekers. The judge ruled that Smith was wrong to send them back to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The government had already chartered a plane to return the Congolese nationals but lawyers submitted evidence that some of those who had already been repatriated by the UK had suffered rape and torture at the hands of DRC officials or agents after arriving at Kinshasa by plane.

At the weekend a former member of the Congo secret police revealed that the regime is torturing its political enemies and that many returned asylum seekers faced horrific treatment. Jules Waka Ndumba told an Observer reporter that those most at risk of rapes, beatings and electrocutions at Kin Maziere are opponents of the government, both in DRC and abroad, and military deserters. Many of the victims had been deported from the UK, France and Germany. Plundering corporations, greedy despots and arms manufacturers, a pattern repeated over and over again, drives repression in the Congo and other countries.

Add to this climate disasters like the recent floods in Africa and there will be many more desperate people fleeing oppression and hunger, seeking a better life in the richer countries of Western Europe. They join the hundreds of thousands from Eastern Europe who toil for a pittance in the fields in Britain and other countries. Meanwhile New Labour continues to terrorise, lock up innocent people and deport them whatever the cost in a bid to win cheap votes at the expense of those without a voice.

Corinna Lotz
AWTW secretary

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Government joins the panic

Desperate times, desperate measures. That’s the only explanation for New Labour’s emergency decision to underwrite every last penny of depositors’ money in Northern Rock – and do the same if any other lender looks like going belly up. The statement was intended to restore confidence in the shattered Northern Rock and stop the run on the bank from spreading to other lenders like Alliance & Leicester, whose shares also plummeted yesterday.

But if the government ever has to put its pledge to the test, the sums involved would actually bankrupt the state, such is the dire nature of the global financial crisis and its impact on Britain. Northern Rock alone has £23 billion in deposits (the maximum they were obliged to return to each investor is just £30,000 should the bank collapse). So New Labour effectively pledged to nationalise the bank as a last resort not so much with depositors’ interests at heart as those of the banking sector, on which this government has come to rely.

The coincidence of the economic and political crisis is self-evident. Last week, Chancellor Alistair Darling called for a return to “old-fashioned banking” methods. In the wake of the first run on a major bank in Britain for over a century, Darling promptly abandoned his position last night. He was forced to act when disbelieving depositors simply ignored statements that the Northern Rock was as solid as it name suggested and continued to queue from dawn to dusk to take their money out. Withdrawals are estimated at £3 billion in three days, equivalent to an eighth of the bank's deposits. Yesterday its shares dropped 155p, or more than 35%, to 283p, from a £12.58 high in February this year.

In fact, the bank’s fortunes have been heading southwards since the crisis on world financial markets got under way in the summer. Over 70% of Northern Rock’s liquidity is dependent on raising cash on wholesale money markets. These markets have dried up because of the contagion of bad debt that emanated from the United States, where the bottom end of the housing market has collapsed. Paradoxically, attempts to sell Northern Rock off foundered when would-be purchasers were unable to raise the money because of the same credit crunch. Today the Bank of England pumped over £4 billion into the money markets in a futile attempt to ease the credit log jam, again reversing a decision of only last week that intervention would serve no purpose!

While the government prattles on about the “fundamentals” of the economy being sound, the opposite is the case. The huge expansion of public and private debt leaves the economy exposed to the chill winds blowing through the financial system. The loss of confidence is forecast to lead to less spending and more saving – probably under mattresses. Mortgages are becoming harder to get and house prices are beginning to fall. The financial services sector – which is the mainstay of British economy – is certain to contract in the wake of the credit crunch, leading to rising unemployment.

At the heart of the crisis is the fact that the recent period of corporate-driven globalisation was funded by an expansion of credit, leading in turn to an international financial system where loans are traded in “debt packages”. Many of these are now what as known as “distressed” or “non-performing”. In other words, they are worthless. What is now threatened is a massive, global destruction of real, physical assets – property, factories, offices as well as pensions. No amount of government guarantees or attempts to bail out banks can put Humpty Dumpty together again. The present economic and political system is clearly unsustainable and not-for-profit alternatives are urgently needed.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Northern Rock storm blows confidence away

The financial storm battering the Northern Rock expresses not just the unravelling of the last 30 years of credit-led expansion but also a growing loss of confidence in both politicians and bankers. Every supposedly reassuring statement and action by chief executive Adam Applegarth, the Bank of England and Chancellor Alistair Darling has had the opposite effect. Every appeal for calm only lengthens the queues outside Northern Rock’s branches and depositors’ attempts to transfer money online. “Confidence” is an essential part of capitalism’s armoury and when it evaporates like it has done over Northern Rock, the entire economic system is affected.

The Bank of England’s unlimited, but expensive loan facility is a transparent but hopeless attempt to control the uncontrollable and keep people with mortgages tied into a lifetime of repayments. Yet the Bank – which only hours before Northern Rock asked for help said publicly that it would not provide lifebelts for troubled institutions - is only one of many central banks trying to keep their economies afloat. A global hurricane of imploding credit is, however, destroying all local defences. Despite recent globalisation, no unifying institution has been created which is able to regulate, control or protect the national components of the global economy from the destructive forces now unleashed.

The credit crisis that has swept the world’s financial markets may have been triggered by America’s housing crisis, but this and Northern Rock’s problems have deeper causes. For more than three decades the bloated financial markets provided increasing credit to service the growth of globalising corporations on the promise of interest payments and profits from increased sales. Consumption was pumped up by drawing consumers into debt.

America’s housing crisis signalled the limits of growth. Consumer demand was already faltering as wages were driven down, savings exhausted and interest rates rose. Inevitably, defaults on mortgage payments followed. Today Alan Greenspan, the former head of the US Federal Reserve, tells the Financial Times that the American housing market contains a large bubble and that prices will tumble. The same process is certain to hit the UK. The level of household debt in the UK surpassed the value of annual production for the first time this year and is unsustainable.

These are signs of an economic and social system that has failed and represents a political crisis for the New Labour government, under which personal debt has mushroomed. Now repossessions will accelerate as people find it increasingly difficult to repay mortgages. However, no-one should lose their home as a consequence of the failing system which exists to extract profit from dependence on the essential need for a place to live.

Northern Rock and all banks and former building societies involved in the mortgage business should be turned over to mutual status. The debts on the mortgages they hold will have to be cancelled, and new arrangements agreed and established through democratic debate. The millions of properties they hold as collateral against loans should be taken over by not-for-profit housing organisations. The owners and directors of Northern Rock could act as unpaid advisers before moving to jobs in the housing industry - on the building sites of a much needed crash programme of zero-carbon house construction. In this way, we could mark the start of a society organised to satisfy the needs of its members rather than the bankers and fatally compromised politicians who misled and lured people into this crisis.

Gerry Gold
AWTW economics editor

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Endless brute force

US President Bush has announced a plan for withdrawing a paltry 5,700 troops from Iraq by Christmas, and more next summer – “the more successful we are, the more American troops can return home", he said. But even as he spoke, it became clearer than ever that the only end game for Bush and his co-thinkers Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney is yet another war. Or as one anti-war West Coast newspaper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, put it, “kicking ass”. Bush is singing from the same hymn sheet as General Petraeus, using him as a pillar of authority. In his speech, Bush referred to the General no less than eight times.

Rice had been on NBC television earlier in the day to talk about “a generational challenge to our security brought on by extremism coming principally out of the Middle East”. She singled out Iraq’s borders with Iran as a new mission, saying the US would “resist both terrorism and Iranian aggression in Iraq”. Iraq, she said, “has some very troublesome neighbours”. US military spokesman Major-General Kevin Bergner claimed that an Iranian-made missile was used in an attack on their HQ in Baghdad on Tuesday, ratcheting up the anti-Iran propaganda.

Rice’s provocative words came only days after Nobel Prize-winning Mohammed El Baradei, head of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency, IAEA, interrupted talks on Tuesday afternoon in protest against the lack of support he was receiving from EU states. Al Baradei is working to reach an agreement with Teheran over nuclear enrichment inspections, and had been making progress in convincing Iran’s negotiators. Whilst Europe hedged its bets, the non-aligned nations, which make up a third of the IAEA board, have been backing Iran.

It was a recent decision by Germany to withdraw from the new sanctions against Iran and its insistence on supporting the UN inspection process, which shocked the Bush administration. Hardened political and military officers at the State Department are said to have given up on diplomatic approaches to Iran - if they ever believed in them in the first place. According to the Washington Post “everyone in town”, is now discussing the costs and benefits of military action against Iran, with a “likely timeframe” of the next 8-10 months. Two options are being considered: a US blockade of Iranian imports of gas and oil; and full-scale aerial bombardment.

The Post’s report makes chilling reading: “…consideration is being given as to how long it would take to degrade Iranian air defences before American air superiority could be established and US fighter jets could then begin a systematic attack on Iran’s known nuclear targets…. A comprehensive attack plan would require at least a week of sustained bombing runs, and would at best set the Iranian nuclear programme back a couple of years.”

Rice and Cheney's attitude is echoed in Israel, which yesterday called for a toughening of sanctions against Iran, urging companies around the world to stop doing business with the Islamic republic. Last week, Israeli jets launched strikes deep into Syria, saying the UN Security Council sanctions were inadequate. Israel, which is the Middle East’s only, though undeclared, nuclear power, is determined to prevent Iran from developing its own atomic weapons. The US is now planning to host top officials from Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany on September 21 to push for a new UN resolution with punitive measures against Teheran. With rout in Iraq staring them in the face, the US industrial-military-political complex must find a new target for their operations. US leaders, followed by Britain, chose to fall out with UN weapons inspectors before, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, pretending that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction. Four years and 130,000 US troops later, the main weapon of mass destruction is the US army, backed by its allies. We have been here before.

Corinna Lotz
AWTW secretary

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Banks pile up 'distressed debt'

The cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, Oscar Wilde once wrote. Today, many cynical bankers don’t even know the price of things, let alone their value as the financial crisis takes its toll. While the financial markets were functioning, bankers offloaded debt packages and other so-called financial instruments on the market. In doing so, they established their price and usually made a profit. But since the current global financial turmoil got under way, bankers are increasingly reluctant to enter into market transactions for fear that the price will be much lower than they paid. Some estimate that the worldwide volume of what is known as “distressed debt” held by banks amounts to as much as $380 billion.

According to an analysis in today’s Financial Times – and this paper should know - this uncertainty has in turn created “a crisis in trust among banks about the credit-worthiness of their peers and therefore wary of lending to each other – which increases concerns about the possibility of bank failure”. Enter one Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, closely followed by Alasdair Darling, who is the Chancellor in the New Labour government. King’s message to the banks, expressed in a letter to MPs, was that they had got themselves into the mess in the first place and had to sort it out. The Bank of England would not ride to their rescue by lending them what is known as three-months money to ease liquidity problems. The European Central Bank has been doing this for weeks, but King warned that these actions could sow “the seeds of a future financial crisis” and encourage “excessive risk-taking”.

Darling’s message, given in an interview with the right-wing Daily Telegraph, was that what the City needs is a good old-fashioned lesson in the basics of successful lending. "My starting point is that Government can't stand on the shoes of borrowers or lenders. They [borrowers] need to ask themselves, 'Can I repay this?' and lenders need to ask themselves, 'If it goes wrong can I get it back?'. People do need to think long and hard about this. One of the by-products of the current situations is that, not just at a high level but right across the piece, people will be a bit more cautious." In reality, King and Darling are talking like men stuck in a time-warp. One banker told the FT that the Bank of England was still living in the 1950s and warned: “This liquidity problems could snowball. A lot of experienced bankers are saying: ‘We’ve not seen this type of illiquidity in the money markets for years. It could lead to a recession.”

But market bail-outs are impossible for several related reasons. The globalisation of financial markets has created mountains of credit and their twin-brother, debt. No one really knows the sums involved and now the banks are refusing to say what they have on their books just in case it is worthless. As part of the deregulation of finance, mortgages were handed out like confetti and New Labour, like the Tories before them, encouraged this. Home ownership should be everyone’s aspiration, the government has said time and time again. Easy credit helped to promote year-on-year growth in consumer spending, without which the capitalist economy grinds to a halt. Now consumers are forced to spend less because, through no fault of their own, the financial system is in crisis. Mortgages are becoming difficult to pay. The implications for the economy are obvious. No wonder New Labour is talking about holding an election sooner rather than later in a bid to beat the rising crescendo of bailiffs banging on doors to take possession of people’s homes.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Anger with New Labour boils over

The TUC’s decision to co-ordinate strike action over public sector pay expresses not so much their desire to confront New Labour but the seething discontent among rank-and-file trade unionists whose living standards and conditions have been eroded by government policies. Their restlessness is also aimed at a compliant trade union leadership who, in the main, have allowed this to take place without a shot being fired. For a decade, the TUC sat on its hands and gave the Blair government carte blanche to privatise whole sections of public services while keeping pay low. They did nothing while full-time staff were replaced by agency workers who, because of their temporary status, are difficult to organise into a union.

Take the health service. Unison’s general secretary Dave Prentis has moaned about contracting out and private health care for as long as anyone cares to listen. As to action, it is shocking to say but the Tory Party has been more active in campaigning against closures of wards and hospitals. If they hoped for a quid pro quo from New Labour, union leaders were sorely disappointed. Anti-union laws introduced by the previous Tory government remain firmly in place. New Labour also retained opt-out clauses negotiated by Thatcher that excludes British workers from the minimum social standards set out in various European Union treaties. In short, the union leaders sold the family silver for nothing. As a result, the trade unions have lost millions of members. Shotgun marriages undertaken in a futile bid to stem the tide have come to nothing, merely creating larger bureaucracies than existed before.

Union leaders hoped beyond hope that incoming prime minister Brown was different. Surprise, surprise – he’s not only the same as Blair but in some respects even more reactionary and definitely more conscious of his political mission. His objective is to make Britain a safe and secure place for global finance and business. The decision to cut public sector pay with a below-inflation award is deliberate. It is intended to impress the International Monetary Fund and the City of London, which now forms the basis of what can loosely be termed the British economy.

So the unanimous show of hands at Brighton to back co-ordinated strike action against the government’s 2% pay limit and privatisation of services is an indication that union leaders cannot keep the lid on the discontent of their members. Civil servants, local government workers, teachers, transport workers, prison officers and postal workers have shown a readiness to resist the government. They display few loyalties to New Labour, unlike the bureaucrats who purport to lead their organisations. The motion to coordinate strike action was led by the civil service union leader Mark Serwotka, one of the few to take on the government. Serwotka contrasted a pay offer that left some staff in Jobcentre Plus with nothing with the huge bonuses paid to City bosses. "Public service workers are not the cause of inflation, they are its victims," he said. "When Gordon Brown slams the door in our face, we have to say we aren't accepting it. Unity is strength." Steve Cox, of the Prison Officers Association, added: "None of us want a repeat of the winter of 1978. However, if the government continues like this, we have to be ready for action."

The task now is to watch the TUC leaders like hawks. Yesterday they also voted Bob Crow, the militant RMT rail union leader, off the TUC's General Council, which shows that the right wing has a majority. People like TUC general secretary Brendan Barber and Unite leaders Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley want to corral the growing anti-New Labour movement and use it as a bargaining counter in negotiations with the government. Our task is to develop the growing strike movement into one that challenges New Labour’s rule and opens up the debate on alternative political and social solutions to the market-led policies of the Brown government.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Reality comes calling at the TUC

Those who inhabit a world of illusions and fantasy can get a nasty shock when reality comes calling. So after Gordon Brown addressed the TUC yesterday, union leaders staggered out into the sunlight to confess that all was not how they thought it was or should be. Gordon, it was claimed beforehand, was different to that nasty Blair. He was closer to the “movement” and what the union leaders like to refer to as “our people”. Unfortunately for the TUC, the movement that Brown is actually close to has nothing to do their members’ interests. As he made clear in his speech, Brown champions the global market economy. And if that means that public sector workers have to take a pay cut, then so be it. The union leaders sat in silence as Brown told them: "So let me be straightforward with you - pay discipline is essential to prevent inflation, to maintain growth and create more jobs - and so that we never return to the old boom and bust of the past."

This was all too predictable for anyone who cares to follow politics. For the union leaders, however, it was all too much. They expressed “disappointment” at Brown’s speech but still couldn’t quite face up to what had happened. Tony Woodley, joint leader of Unite, who is on record praising Brown, was unhappy that he offered nothing to improve the conditions of agency workers. Paul Kenny, leader of the GMB, warned that his union's members could "walk away" from New Labour unless relations improved. "We sign a cheque every year for £2m for Labour, yet we can't get basic rights for agency workers." Why wait Brother Kenny? There is absolutely no chance of relations improving, and you and your fellow union leaders know that. Hanging on to Brown’s coat-tails is simply a sign of desperation and fear.

Meanwhile, Brown’s government is now shaping up as a combination of pro-globalisation policies combined with a heavy dose of nationalism and the politics of the one-party state. Yesterday, Brown pledged 500,000 “British jobs for British workers” – a slogan that the extreme right-wing BNP has had for years. This came a day after the home secretary pledged to force immigrants to speak English. The docile media described these moves as part of the new PM's determination to “occupy the centre ground”. There was too much even for Nick Robinson, the BBC’s political correspondent, who wrote in his blog: “Ponder for a second how exactly the same policies or phrases would have been written up had David Cameron delivered them. A ‘lurch to the right’ anyone? Or, even, ‘language normally associated with the far right BNP’ Few things better illustrate the strategic confidence of Gordon Brown. He spots the territory - immigration, Britishness... etc - which the Tories are nervous of occupying and plants his flag there. This increases pressure on Cameron from the Tory press and right-wingers to move onto this territory. If he does so, he's accused of, you're there already, ‘lurching to the right’.”

Soon Brown will call a general election and seek a mandate from so-called Middle England, where “fear of crime” is only surpassed by fear of people of a different colour and militant trade unionists. No doubt the same union leaders who expressed dismay at Brown’s speech will be pulled into line by the threat of a return of the Tories and meekly hand over their members’ subscriptions. A World to Win, by contrast, will campaign against a vote for New Labour. This government and the parliamentary state it presides over is undemocratic, unrepresentative, authoritarian and in the pockets of big business. But it’s too much to expect the blinkered, bureaucratic union leaders to understand this harsh reality.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Set fair for hot air in Brighton

The TUC Congress in Brighton this week will hear some angry words and even some heartfelt speeches on the themes of vulnerable workers, trade union rights (or the lack of them), poverty, social housing, casualisation, employment rights, globalisation and other issues. But everyone knows that the words spoken at Congress carry little weight and hardly any influence anywhere. The TUC, far from taking any action against globalisation (and its consequences of poverty, grotesque inequality and privatisation) has ended up as an accessory to the fact.

They have sat back and watched the organisation created by the unions over 100 years ago being transformed into the primary party of corporate interests in the UK. Yet still the union leaders go on pleading with Gordon Brown as if he simply had to be shown the right path. In fact, TUC leaders are pinning all their hopes on the Brown government, even though the prime minister is the main architect of the capitalist policies that they formally oppose.

So Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of Unite, can write in his union journal: “Gordon Brown has shown over the last couple of months that it is possible for Labour to leave behind the increasingly-dismal Blair years and start to forge a new course in office.” He claims to see signs of a new approach, of “a more independent foreign policy, the new commitment to house-building and the calm handling of the attempted bombings in early July”. Which planet does Woodley live on? Is he talking about the same Brown who has reinforced market-driven policies on every occasion, threatened more anti-terror laws, praised the Bush regime, imposed below-inflation pay awards on unions and brought Tories and others into the government?.

Brown, who is due to make a speech to Congress today, will be greatly encouraged by such a feeble, bankrupt perspective, shared by most of the TUC. He wants to reduce even further the influence of the unions and constituency members in the Labour Party, and won’t pay any attention to the lobby by the unions of Parliament in support of the Trade Union Freedom Bill next month. Brown is planning to abolish the right of conference to vote against the government on policy, and to refer controversial issues to the National Policy Forum. As Seamus Milne in a comment piece for The Guardian, put it, “Brown’s proposals would mean the final relegation of their [the unions] federal role to lobbyists-cum-cash cow”.

Brown’s government will also be working hard to head off the possibility that the TUC might vote for a referendum on the question of the new EU treaty. Brown, like Blair, does not want his plans challenged by decisions of his own party or even by results of referenda that could interfere with his vision of Britain as a driving force for the global market economy. That is what this government is about, and his fine phrases about a New Politics, citizens juries, dialogue with the people, participation politics, conviction politics etc, are simply a smokescreen for this agenda.

The class struggle, meanwhile, broke surface, spectacularly, last week, when London Underground workers held a strike in defence of jobs, pay and pensions after Metronet, the private company set up in the wake of Brown’s privatisation policies, collapsed. The workers, members of the RMT, and their leader Bob Crow came face to face with the wrath of the Tory media as well as Brown and Mayor Livingstone. The TUC, as usual, was silent. In truth, union leaders with some honourable exceptions, have nothing to say and no leadership to offer. By going cap-in-hand to Brown, they add insult to injury to their loyal, hard-working members who pay their subscriptions as well as the wages of the privileged bureaucrats whose hot air will dominate proceedings in Brighton.

Peter Arkell

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Friday, September 07, 2007

US confronted by double crisis

The warnings about the dangerous state of the global economy are flying thick and fast. Earlier this week, a senior banker told City financiers that capital markets had suffered a heart attack over the summer. “If we stay stuck,” Hans-Jörg Rudloff, chairman of Barclays Capital said, “the patient will die”. Then the half-yearly forecast by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development published on Thursday urged action by the United States Federal Reserve to counter the threat of a recession.

The report makes sober reading. It underlines the reality that the shock-waves on the property and share markets are not a blip or “market correction” but rather the beginning of a protracted and deepening recession. Using the word “ominous”, the organisation’s chief economist, Jean-Philippe Cotis spelled it out: “Our diagnosis is a slow-down. We cannot rule out a recession.” He added that the OECD now expected the US to grow at 1.9%, against an earlier projection of 2.2%, as the housing sector exerted a "longer and more potent-than-expected drag". Cotis admitted that analysts had been taken by surprise by the “spread of this financial risk beyond the boundaries of the US” and called for a more active fight against “"predatory lending", as well as "more pugnacious" rating agencies.

The crash in the US housing market has led to a continuing credit crisis bringing, not only the Fed, but also the Bank of England and the European Central Bank under increasing pressure. Yesterday, the Fed responded by injecting another $31.3bn (£15.5bn) into the banking system and the European Central Bank pumped €42.2bn (£28.5bn) into the money markets. Yet more signs have emerged that the US financial and economic crisis is worsening. The property market is at its weakest since the dip after the 9/11 attacks, the Dow Jones plunged and the dollar fell on foreign exchange markets.

The sharp decline of the US economy and the prospects of a long-term downturn are clearly destabilising the global financial and economic order. It’s also more bad news for the US presidency, which is already in terminal decline as one Bush adviser after another quits the White House. Even if there were solutions to the economic crisis, Bush and his diminishing circle are tied down by a morass of insoluble problems that originate deep within the political and state system in Washington itself.

There is an almost unanimous agreement that the war in Iraq has failed. Even former supporters of Bush and the invasion of Iraq have turned critical. One right-wing commentator, Timothy Garton Ash, has noted that “there are now only about three people in the world (G Bush, R Cheney, D Rumsfeld) who would not acknowledge that US policy over Iraq was deeply flawed and inconsistent”. But the realisation that invasion has been an unmitigated disaster does not translate into an ability to change strategy or learn from errors. Garton Ash points to the strange fact that the failure to build a viable state structure in Iraq is a kind of mirror image of the governmental and constitutional crisis within the American leadership circles themselves, hampered by, he notes, the disproportionate influence of lobbyists and funders, and an absurdly dysfunctional election timetable. One senior military officer, Garton Ash reported, has compared the malfunctioning of the US government to that of the Hapsburg empire as it staggered into the First World War, an event from which, of course, it never recovered.

Corinna Lotz
AWTW secretary

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Cream for the rich, cake for the rest

While the media assault on the RMT union continues– even though Tube maintenance workers have suspended their strike– news comes of how well some people are doing when it comes to pensions. Tube and other workers affected by bankrupt companies are rightly concerned whether they will actually get a pension but top directors are sitting pretty. Directors of the UK's top companies have amassed pensions worth nearly £1 billion, according to the annual TUC PensionsWatch survey published today.

The TUC's analysis shows that the average executive can retire at 60 on a final salary pension worth over £3 million, up £300,000 in a year. This is enough to provide a pension of £193,000 a year - more than 25 times the average occupational pension of £7,500 a year and an increase of 15% on the findings of last year's survey. Looking just at the director with the biggest pension in each company, their average pension is worth £5.3 million, up £400,000 in a year. This is enough to pay out a pension of £320,000 - over 42 times more than most staff pensions - and an increase of 10% since last year. The biggest final salary pension pot in the survey tops £21 million - £2 million more than the biggest last year - and would pay the director over £1 million a year. Five directors have a pension pot worth over £12 million.

Key findings show that:

  • the proportion of directors with final salary pensions is 79%
  • 59% of companies have closed final salary schemes to new staff in recent years
  • 38 out of the 49 companies where information is available allow directors to retire on a full pension at 60
  • directors' pensions grow twice as fast as the most common rate for employees
  • employer contributions to directors' schemes was, on average, the equivalent of around 20% cent of salary, compared to the average of just 5.8% for all employees
  • the highest annual employer contribution to a director's defined contribution pension was £988,732.
TUC general secretary Brendan Barber rightly says: “Top executive pay has already created a new group of the super-rich who float free from the rest of society. This report shows that this does not stop with their retirement.” What is he and other union leaders going to do about it? Where is the support for the RMT’s fight for pensions and job security following the collapse of Metronet? All the signs are that the TUC leaders will continue to prostrate themselves before a government that has created the conditions for the super-rich in Britain to flourish like never before.

The gap between the rich and poor has reached levels not seen for more than 40 years. Government statistics show that the richest 10% of the population control more than half the wealth of the country, with the top 1% controlling no less than 21%. In the City, fat-cat pay awards mean that top executives earn 100 times more than their employees. Meanwhile, private equity and hedge funds pay "less tax than a cleaner", according to Nicholas Ferguson, chairman of private-equity and fund management group SVG Capital. Soaring house prices have left hundreds of thousands of households unable to afford decent housing while properties in London regularly change hands for more than a million pounds. The level of social mobility in the UK is among the lowest of any developed nation. For New Labour, the rich are simply reaping the just rewards for enterprise, initiative and investment in the market economy. As for the rest, in another century the slogan might be “Let them eat cake”.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Tube workers defy 'brutal' logic

The RMT rail union may have suspended the strike by a group of Tube maintenance workers while it considers a fresh offer, but not before enduring hysterical press and political attacks. What angered the London media and politicians from Ken Livingstone to Gordon Brown, was the fact that a group of workers rejected soothing words and actually dared to take action that was more than just a gesture. The London Underground network ground to a halt following the strike by staff who formerly worked for Metronet. This consortium, set up after New Labour’s partial privatisation of the network, collapsed recently, leaving it in the hands of administrators and Transport for London, which is part of the mayor’s Greater London Authority.

Union action on this scale is not supposed to happen any more. But while leaders from unions like Unison roll over like pussycats and allow the government to break up the health service, and dither about action over a pay award that is actually a pay cut, others are not so compliant. Last week the Prison Officers Association led an illegal walk-out. Then the Tube maintenance workers launched their strike over pensions and job security, both undermined by the collapse of Metronet. Led by general secretary Bob Crow, they also demanded the return of the Tube maintenance system to public ownership.

This was too much for the right-wing media and politicians. Yesterday the Evening Standard devoted page after page to an assault on the RMT and Crow in particular. One edition had a picture of Crow on the front page alongside a banner headline declaring ‘MAN WHO STOPPED LONDON ITS TRACKS’. On pages two and three, interviews with commuters ran under the headline ‘travellers forced to endure days of delay and frustration express their disgust at Tube strikers on a good wage’. Leaving aside the fact that the strike was actually nothing to do with wage demands, the barrage continued on the following pages.

Another double-page spread ran under the headline ‘Union plays politics and costs £50m a day’ and a sub-heading which carried the predictable report that business leaders condemned the RMT’s ‘pointless’ action over jobs and pensions. Underneath there was an attempted character assassination of Crow as the country’s “most hardline and notorious” union leader. It reported that he had been banned from a pub near his union HQ for singing too loudly! The report had to acknowledge, however, that he had built up the union’s membership. Further on in the paper, Mayor Livingstone had a whole page to condemn what he described as a “deeply damaging and pointless strike”, an article no doubt written by his £100,000-a-year advisers, many of whom laughingly claim to be left-wingers.

But the real issues were posed in another column, this time by financial editor Anthony Hilton. He wrote that the union was wrong to think its members had any more right to “future guarantees of their income and job security than anyone else who has worked for a company which went bust. It’s brutal, but it’s capitalism.” The logic is inescapable. Don’t bother resisting – it’s market capitalism stupid. You have to love it because there is no alternative. Well, the RMT – which is no longer affiliated to capitalist New Labour – is challenging that entirely business point of view. While prime minister Brown goes on constructing his one-party state, where confrontation and classes are declared things of the past, resistance is growing to Hilton’s “brutal” society. The RMT leaders have, in effect, said that another world is necessary and their action should be supported.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Dream factory turns on Bush

US President Bush’s surprise secret visit to Iraq yesterday was a desperate attempt to rally support for an enterprise that is ending in humiliation and defeat. The deep fissures that the invasion and occupation has created in American society itself are now being reflected right in the heart of the US dream factory itself – Hollywood. At the Venice Film festival, Oscar-winning actress Charlize Theron became the latest star to put her views on the line by calling for the removal of US troops in Iraq. “Nothing would give me more joy than to see them [the troops] back in America,” she said. “They are doing a very, very important job and it’s a dangerous one. Hopefully they can come back and be looked after, that’s the least we can do for them.”

In addition to calling for US troops to leave Iraq, the Monster actress warned the American people to open their eyes to the conflict in Iraq and other regions around the world. Theron’s latest film, In The Valley of Elah, which co-stars Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones, is based on the true story of a soldier who went missing on his first weekend back from serving in Iraq. Theron plays Emily Sanders, the detective leading the investigation into the soldier’s disappearance. The film is written and directed by Paul Haggis, who made Crash. Haggis, who is well-known for his anti-war views, said he was concerned about the absence of the kind of images that had shocked the public into opposing the Vietnam War. “I think when that doesn’t happen, it’s the responsibility of the artist to ask those questions,” he said, adding: “All films are political when your country is at war.”

Brian De Palma is just as explicit in his film Redacted, also in competition in Venice. The movie is a ferocious argument against the war in Iraq for what it is doing to everyone involved. It is about members of a US Army squad who rape and murder a 15-year-old Iraqi girl and kill her family. These offerings in Venice will be followed by other major films on the theme of Iraq war veterans. The Weinstein Company will be releasing Grace is Gone, directed by James C Strouse in October while Paramount is completing Stop Loss, with Ryan Philippe as a veteran who defies an order to send him back to Iraq. Leonardo DiCaprio is working on two films which also have political themes. He is joining up with Kate Winslet for Revolutionary Road, based on a novel about post-World War II disillusionment. He is also making Body of Lies, about a journalist injured in the Iraq war, who is hired by the CIA. DiCaprio is also campaigning on the issue of climate change. His documentary Eleventh Hour was released in the US last month.

The fact that Hollywood is turning out these kinds of films reflects a considered view by producers that there is an audience out there ready to see films critical of the US state and its machinations. What this also shows is that America is far from the monolithic, my-nation-right-or-wrong, stereotype too many people impose on it. The Bush regime has divided the country like no other president. Now millions of poor people stand to lose their homes through mortgage defaults. This is a very different America from a few years ago and confirms that real events change people’s views, or at least shakes them up and creates doubt. As the economic crisis unfolds, with strong echoes of the 1930s depression, we should see what Hollywood is doing as an indicator of even bigger convulsions to come.

Corinna Lotz
AWTW secretary

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Monday, September 03, 2007

Things can only get worse

In 1997, New Labour’s election theme tune was Things Can Only Get Better. If Gordon Brown is thinking of calling a snap general election it is because the government knows that severe economic and political turbulence lies ahead and that things can only get worse. For the New Labour government faces a growing financial crisis, demands for a referendum on the new European Treaty and a rising tide of trade union militancy. Of prime concern to the Brown government is the state of global financial markets. The hurricane blowing through the markets will touch most of the population in one form or another in the next period. While Brown and his ministers repeat that the “fundamentals of the economy” are sound, as if the financial maelstrom was taking place on another planet, quite the reverse is true. The fact that a bank like Barclays is in difficulties is just one indication of how serious the situation is.

The entire financial system is now overwhelmed by a Mount Everest of debt that is increasingly “non-performing” – borrowers are unable to repay the interest, let alone the capital. Because the sums involved are astronomical, as well as the fact that the financial system is largely uncontrolled, unregulated and out of sight, central bank intervention makes little difference. As debt unravels, the impact on the “real” economy is palpable. Because capitalism requires credit and debt to oil the system of production for profit, as this lubricant dries up, so too does economic activity and we enter a period of recession. And because the global economy is deeply integrated and interconnected, the impact of an economic decline will be felt worldwide and in quick order.

At the personal, consumer level, the debt crisis is already taking its toll in Britain. The rise in interest rates has caught out people who borrowed five, six or even seven times their income to buy a home. Repossessions are rising at a rate not seen since the early 1990s. It may not yet have reached the levels of the United States, where over one million households face losing their homes because of mortgage default, but the signs are ominous. House prices are already falling outside London and the shake-out of City jobs forecast for later this year will take the heat out of prices in the capital too. So 2008 looks like being a year of negative equity – for bankers and ordinary people alike. In addition to all this, the Brown government is having to face down trade union wage demands, which produced the unprecedented and illegal walk-out by prison officers last week. Now even the police want the right to strike, something they lost in 1919 after laying down their truncheons for the first and last time.

Brown is presenting himself as a politician who speaks for all classes in society in a bid to woo Tory voters. In today’s Daily Telegraph, he says that people “are fed up with confrontational politics” and that his role is to reach “out to those who might not be thought of as our supporters or identified with us”. This is Brown the corporatist speaking, the politician who has done most to restructure the state so that it more directly serves big business and financial interests. These same interests are now in deep crisis and major shocks lie ahead. Whether he likes it or not, Brown will have to face up to “confrontation” as people fight to defend their own interests – their jobs, pensions, houses and standards of living.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

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