Monday, December 31, 2007

A turbulent 2008 beckons

The coming year is certain to be one of the most turbulent for a generation in terms of economic, social and political instability, particularly in Britain. While they undoubtedly present themselves as dangers and threats to people’s jobs and livelihoods, the new conditions also open up the possibility of shaping the future in a way that reflects the aspirations of the powerless majority.

At the heart of the matter is, of course, the crisis in the global capitalist financial system and its growing impact on the economy in general. We are witnessing the early moments of the unravelling of a period of economic growth constructed like a house of cards, with debt as its less-than-solid foundations.

The collapse of Northern Rock in Britain is only one example of what is to come in 2008. In the United States, several banks including Merrill Lynch, are in serious difficulties. Executives gave up their Christmas turkey to spend the holidays desperately trying to raise new capital for the ailing bank. John Thain, the new chief executive held talks with Chinese and Middle Eastern state-controlled sovereign wealth funds that could lead to the sale of another big stake in the bank.

Reports are mounting that Merrill Lynch will be forced to write down between $10bn and $15bn worth of assets related to CDOs - so called collateralised debt obligations - when it reports financial results next month. But the value of these assets is falling day by day – if buyers can be found at all – as the financial system remains log jammed by the so-called credit crunch. What Merrill Lynch is facing – just like banks around the world - therefore, is a solvency crisis. That’s why attempts by the world’s central banks to increase liquidity have had no real impact.

An economic system founded on credit and its twin brother debt, must plunge towards slump as lending is cut back and loans called in. No wonder then that New Labour prime minister Gordon Brown fears for the worst. Already wounded by his opponents, Brown insisted that "with unbending determination, in 2008, we will steer a course of stability through global financial turbulence" just as “we withstood the Asia crisis, the American recession, the end of the IT bubble and the trebling of oil prices”.

This is more of the same wishful thinking that led his government to ignore the warning signs at Northern Rock. It is also a distinctly rosy view of history. The trebling of oil prices in 1973 led to a period of social instability that lasted until the late 1980s. Two governments – Heath’s in 1974 and Callaghan’s in 1979 – were brought down by resistance to the impact of the economic slump and renegade MI5 and army officers seriously plotted a coup.

Furthermore, the British economy has lived beyond its means on a greater scale than anyone has previously understood. Figures released just before Christmas show that the gap between imports and exports is now a staggering 5.7% of gross domestic product – just as big as America’s and twice the level earlier estimates suggested. Stephen King, managing director of economics at HSBC, noted in The Independent (December 24): “And just like the US, the UK economy has motored along on a diet of debt and ever-rising house prices. To claim, then, that the sub-prime and credit crisis was born in the United States along is nonsense.”

Brown may want to portray himself as the politician who can guide the country through the crisis. But the truth is that events are largely out of his control. The same market forces that he encouraged as chancellor now dominate and will decide the fate of his government as well as the economy in general. The evolving crisis offers real opportunities to campaign for and create a new chapter in history, based on sustainable economic and political, democratic alternatives to the madness of the capitalist market economy and the corporate state. Building the membership and influence of A World to Win will be crucial in ensuring this project’s successful outcome.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

Friday, December 21, 2007

The other Bethlehem story

The Palestinians of Bethlehem, which according to the Gospels is the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth, have waited and struggled a long time for their freedom. Rulers down the ages have included the Romans, Persians, Crusaders, Ottomans, Egyptians, British, Jordanians and, to date, the Israelis who captured the town in 1967.

The Israelis have built a wall which runs along on the northern side of the town’s built-up area and getting to nearby Jerusalem means obtaining a permit and passing through Israeli checkpoints. Not surprisingly, the numbers of Christians who are able to visit the Church of the Nativity at Christmas have plummeted.

How many more Christmases will the Palestinians of Bethlehem – who include one of the oldest Christian communities in the Middle East – have to endure occupation? The recent negotiations in the US between Israel and the Palestinian Authority ended without progress. That was inevitable. A large section of the Palestinians, the Gazans, were not even represented at the talks as their elected Hamas leadership is deemed unacceptable to Washington, which props up the Israeli regime with guns and funds.

The territories captured by Israel in 1967 are now so riddled with settlements, roads, checkpoints and the infamous wall, that drawing the boundaries of an integrated Palestinian state is simply an impossible task. In other words, a two-state “solution” is now history. Increasing numbers of Palestinians and Israelis now see that a single, secular state, that would embrace all the people in the area, is the only practical way forward. A One State Declaration was issued recently following conferences in Madrid and London. Endorsed by both Palestinians and Israelis, as well as by people from around the world, it says:

• The historic land of Palestine belongs to all who live in it and to those who were expelled or exiled from it since 1948, regardless of religion, ethnicity, national origin or current citizenship status;
• Any system of government must be founded on the principle of equality in civil, political, social and cultural rights for all citizens. Power must be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all people in the diversity of their identities;

• There must be just redress for the devastating effects of decades of Zionist colonization in the pre- and post-state period, including the abrogation of all laws, and ending all policies, practices and systems of military and civil control that oppress and discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, religion or national origin;

• The recognition of the diverse character of the society, encompassing distinct religious, linguistic and cultural traditions, and national experiences;

• The creation of a non-sectarian state that does not privilege the rights of one ethnic or religious group over another and that respects the separation of state from all organized religion;

• The implementation of the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees in accordance with UN Resolution 194 is a fundamental requirement for justice, and a benchmark of the respect for equality;

• The creation of a transparent and non-discriminatory immigration policy;

• The recognition of the historic connections between the diverse communities inside the new, democratic state and their respective fellow communities outside;

• In articulating the specific contours of such a solution, those who have been historically excluded from decision-making -- especially the Palestinian Diaspora and its refugees, and Palestinians inside Israel -- must play a central role;

• The establishment of legal and institutional frameworks for justice and reconciliation.

The more support this statement of principles gathers, the greater are the prospects that the Palestinians of Bethlehem and other towns and villages under occupation will win their freedom.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

Our next blog will be published on December 31. Seasonal greetings to all our readers.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Cultural apartheid

Disbelief all around has greeted the announcement that the Arts Council of England (ACE) is axing a fifth of the organisations it helps to fund. And it is not simply the loss of financial support that has angered arts practitioners, but the way in which the cuts have been made. The Arts Council only gave arts bodies 18 working days to lodge an appeal, after sending them a letter last week – what a nice Christmas present! Some are being forced to issue redundancy letters to staff because the cuts could mean they are trading while insolvent.

ACE chief executive, Peter Hewitt, who draws a salary of upwards of £152,000 per year, justified the withdrawal of arts funding from almost 200 organisations on grounds of “artistic concerns”. A spokeswoman for ACE claimed the distribution of funds was based on “the strength of the artistic output”. Hiding behind the spurious grounds of artistic quality, the cuts have a sinister logic. They damage areas of the country where arts provision is already spread thin.

The Northcott theatre in Exeter will lose the £547,000 ACE grant from April 2009, one third of its annual income – even though it has just undergone a £2.1m refurbishment! It is the only producing theatre between Plymouth and Bristol. In addition, the Bristol Old Vic, one of the oldest theatres in the UK, closed since July, may not be able to re-open. The smaller and the most vulnerable venues, whether in London or around the country, have been targeted in a sorry tale of bullying.

Two organisations promoting gay and lesbian events, Queer Up North and The Drill Hall in London, are being hit particularly hard. Funding for the Drill Hall is to be withdrawn within three months. Its chair Russell Gilderson has pointed out that the £250,000 cut will take place at a time when the Arts Council has the second highest number of staff in its history. “It calls itself the national arts development agency, but no one has ever seen a single national arts development strategy… And more to the point, exactly how does ACE see this as taking the arts forward into a climate of greater inclusion?” he said in a letter to The Guardian.

A small but extremely active and original company in London, the Bubble Theatre is appealing against a £420,000 cut in funding. Its chair, Sandy Craig, says: “We’ll have to close. I feel very angry. I feel there has been no process of consultation…” On a tiny budget, the Bubble runs four youth theatres, two adult theatre groups and one intergenerational band. It also works in 33 schools, attracting 43% of its participants from black, minority ethnic and refugee communities.

Director Jonathan Petherbridge said he was “gob smacked” by ACE’s claim that they had taken into account “the need to increase engagement and participation”. He told A World to Win: “If we want to build a broad theatre, we need to include a broad swathe of people. These decisions are being made by a narrow section of people for a narrow section of society. Instead of a diverse theatre, we will end up with boring theatre.”

In a fatuous speech at Tate Modern earlier this year, ex-PM Blair claimed that the arts would not suffer as a result of Olympics spending. Well, while it’s true that some major arts organisations will continue to benefit, New Labour is cutting off the oxygen to a host of truly creative organisations that have reached out to new audiences in culturally deprived areas. That is the real logic of the cultural apartheid underlying the Arts Council’s bureaucratic madness.

Corinna Lotz
AWTW secretary

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Throwing good money after bad

The government certainly has got its priorities right at this time of giving. Forget those on disability benefits or older people struggling to pay for their care. Don’t bother about hard-pressed commuters facing sharp fare rises in January or people who can’t pay their mortgages. Don’t even worry about soldiers doing your dirty work in Afghanistan with second-rate equipment. But do show a great deal of concern, backed by large sums of money, about bankers.

Yesterday New Labour gave another hand-out to Northern Rock in a desperate move to keep the failed mortgage bank going so that it can be sold on. Brown’s business government announced that guarantees to the beleaguered bank could rise to £57 billion - almost as much as the annual Whitehall education budget and twice as much as originally laid out. That means that each taxpayer has loaned – without being asked and without any guarantees of repayment - the equivalent of £1,800. Were it so easy for ordinary people to get such easy money from the state just when they need it!

The government clearly fears that the collapse of Northern Rock would be a calamity so is prepared to risk all to take on the bank’s liabilities without gaining any legal control through nationalisation. In fact, the government has handed out more money, this time to Goldman Sachs for advice on how it can avoid state ownership of Northern Rock! The problem for the government and the financial industry as a whole is that the sale of Northern Rock is being held up by the so-called credit crunch. Banks who are interested in acquiring Northern Rock will have to borrow money to carry through the purchase. But the money markets are somewhat paralysed at the moment.

Enter the Bank of England and its equally hard-pressed governor, Mervyn King. He is also offering cheap loans to bankers to encourage them to return to the good old days of lending freely to each other as well as the public. King was up before a Commons select committee to explain why the Bank of England had apparently not seen the credit crunch coming or had spotted that Northern Rock was in trouble before it was too late. The governor warned that if the banks continued to rein in lending, an economic recession was pretty much inevitable.

King said: "There is not a shortage of cash. The large banks are now awash with cash. The issue is not whether they have enough cash, it is whether they are inclined to lend." He added: "A painful adjustment faces the global banking sector over the next few months as losses are revealed and new capital is raised to repair bank balance sheets." They are concerned at the capital position of other banks and where debts related to the US housing market collapse would appear next, he explained. King is right to be concerned. Figures released yesterday show that permits to build new homes in America have fallen by almost a quarter in 12 months.

King tried to blame the credit squeeze on sheer greed, with financiers buying and selling debt packages in a bid to make greater and greater returns. This is a partial, one-sided account of the process. Corporate-driven globalisation of the last 30 years was founded on debt in a bid to overcome some basic contradictions built into the capitalist system. The credit crunch is only the surface of the unravelling of this arrangement at state, financial and personal levels. Instead of trying to prop up the bankers, society needs to think seriously about creating alternatives to the failing market economy, as we suggest in our new book, A House of Cards.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Afghan debacle

Gordon Brown claims that recent fighting at Musa Qala is a turning point in the six-year war against the Taleban in Afghanistan. The truth is that British and NATO operations in the country have been an unmitigated debacle and a suicide mission for many of the troops involved.

Even Brown’s allies in the “war against terror” - the justification for invading Afghanistan in the first place - don’t necessarily share the prime minister’s confidence. The Bush adminstration and NATO have just launched three major reviews of the entire Afghan mission, ranging from security and counter-terrorism to political and economic development. The New York Times says that the reviews are an admission that earlier successes in fighting the Taleban and Al Qaeda forces may have evaporated.

This has been the most violent year since the invasion of 2001. One senior NATO diplomat has admitted that “now we have significant issues with certain areas producing opium and the Taleban coming back in certain parts of the country, as well”. In addition, the allies are less than complimentary about each other: “The Germans, the Spanish, the Italians don’t send any troops to the south except for 250 troops by Germany,” said Representative Joe Sestak. A retired three-star admiral, Sestak complained that some allies “refuse to do combat ops at night and some don’t fly when the first snowflake falls”.

The balance sheet is as follows:
- a six year-occupation by NATO forces
- 40,000 troops, plus 12,000 other US troops conducting “counter- terrorism” operations
- illegal imprisonment of innocent people at Guantanamo
- billions spent on military operations
- £18 billions spent on NGOs
- high altitude bombing which has killed countless villagers
- a suicide mission in Helmand – dubbed “Hell-land” by British troops – with £1bn being spent on a new base there
- a resurgent Taleban roaming freely through most parts of the country outside Kabul.

And what has all this meant for the people of Afghanistan? Here is what Khaled Hosseini (author of The Kite Runner, which opens as a film next week) found when he returned to his hometown Kabul for the first time in 30 years. The capital, home to some three million people, is nothing less than a disaster area. The poverty and disarray in many areas was, in Hosseini’s words, “unspeakable”.

While visiting the grave of a popular Afghan singer, he was “mobbed again by burqa-clad women and barefoot children, their hair matted with dirt, faces oozing with sores, their teeth rotting already, begging for baksheesh [alms].” A Kabul policeman complained to him about the millions in aid given to the NGOs who spent it on fancy cards, offices and guesthouses.

Whilst the NATO occupation of Afghanistan cannot be blamed entirely for the destruction of what was once a beautiful country and capital city – the Soviet invasion and the Taleban are also responsible - it is certain that six years of occupation and war by mainly US and British forces have taken the country further down the road to hell.

So what exactly is the purpose of this mission, if it cannot succeed? As British forces withdraw from Basra, openly admitting to television cameras, that to remain in Iraq would only unite people against them, Brown badly needs to point to success in Afghanistan as his grip on the economy is seen to falter. It is a heavy price to pay for enhancing the tarnished image of a British Prime Minister.

Corinna Lotz
AWTW secretary

Monday, December 17, 2007

'Road map' with no destination

Environment secretary Hilary Benn and other ministers gathered at the Bali climate talks fell over themselves in the rush to declare the conference a resounding success. The reality is somewhat different. All that was agreed at Bali was to hold talks about more talks with the hope that one day there will be a firm agreement to cut carbon emissions. As one campaigner put it, the “road map” sketched out in Bali actually lacks a destination. And, as any walker knows, a map without a destination point is actually worse than useless.

A deal was struck in Bali on the basis that the agreement was left vague. There was an air of desperation of 11 days of fruitless talks. Plans to work towards binding cuts in carbon emissions were abandoned in favour of a statement which talked about the need to make “deep cuts” without saying how these might be achieved. Just in case anyone was under the illusion that the United States had shifted its ground, yesterday American officials were pouring cold water on Bali. Washington said that the US had "serious concerns" about future talks geared at setting emission targets.

Nelson Muffuh, a senior climate change policy analyst with Christian Aid, said: "The US delegation in particular proved a major obstacle to progress. They appeared to operate a wrecking policy, as though determined to derail the whole process. We were expecting a road map, and we've got one. But it lacks signposts and there is no agreed destination."
While Benn hailed the agreement as an "historic breakthrough", Andy Atkins, the advocacy director of Tearfund, the relief charity, said: "The fact that there is no agreement about how far to cut emissions means the Bali road map is missing a vital signpost. An ambitious, science-based target will have to be agreed by 2009 if the new agreement is not to be fatally flawed." Keith Allott, the head of climate change at WWF UK, said: "We are not at all pleased. We were looking for a road map with a destination."

The harsh reality is that climate change is advancing at a swift pace and the world’s major powers are incapable of doing anything about it. The political elites are beholden to corporate interests and the mantras of the market economy to such an extent that paralysis is the order of the day. Cutting carbon emissions at the rate required to halt global warming could only be achieved through a massive disruption to the status quo of production for profit. It would mean abandoning the drive to produce more and more commodities for the market and a total restructuring of economic activity. Whole new approaches to work and transport would be needed to minimise private car use. Local combined heat and power systems would replace centralised power plants. Can you see this happening under New Labour? Of course not! While global temperatures continue to rise, bringing sea level changes and extreme weather conditions, Benn and his fellow ministers will wasting more time on fruitless post-Bali meetings. The future of the planet cannot be left in their hands.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Friday, December 14, 2007

Time to cook Electrolux

The closure announced today of the Electrolux cooker factory in County Durham with the loss of 500 jobs is an opportunity for the trade unions to reject the profit and loss approach of the global corporations and mount a worldwide campaign against the decision. The early signs are not hopeful.

Electrolux’s decision is the worst kind of Christmas news for the workforce in an area of permanently high unemployment. Just as bad is the initial reaction of the workers’ union, Unite. Speaking after the announcement, Jeff Morland, North East divisional officer for the union, said: "I'm standing in the canteen with a lot of our members and obviously there is a lot of disappointment, fear and some anger. It could not have happened at a worse time and I think there will be the ghost of a few Christmases past rattling around here over the weekend. There is a lot to take in for families and this is the worst possible Christmas present."

These less-than-inspiring words were a reaction to the news that the plant in Spennymoor will close next year, with some production moving to Poland, where labour is cheaper. Morland’s pessimistic words are typical of a union leadership whose own jobs are safe following the merger of the engineers and transport workers to create Unite. The merger was driven by statements that it would create a stronger base to oppose closures like the one Electrolux has announced. Well, here’s their chance.

Electrolux had sales of almost £8 billion last year and a workforce of 57,000. The company has 22 factories in Europe and is the world's second largest appliance manufacturer. In other words, there is a powerful network of factories and workers that Unite could turn to. The union could mount a campaign against the closure throughout Europe to begin with.

Electrolux says it is moving production to “improve competitiveness”. This is the heart of the matter and the union has to reject this profit-driven approach if it is serious about fighting the corporations. Instead of calling on the New Labour government “to do more to protect British manufacturing” – as Morland did today – Unite should make the case of running production on a not-for-profit, co-operative basis. Giving money to the corporations simply doesn’t work, in any case. In 2005, regional development agency One NorthEast agreed to plough £1.6m into the plant, in an effort to retain manufacturing jobs in County Durham.

In the coming months, corporations in every country will come under pressure to cut workforces as the economic recession bites. If Unite takes up the challenge to resist the Electrolux closure, it would inspire workers in every Electrolux plant whose owns are on the line. The first step would be to prevent the closure in Spennymoor with an occupation of the plant, supported by the local community, and to launch an appeal to Polish workers to reject the switch in production. That’s the kind of Christmas message the unions should be sending to Electrolux.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Central bankers go for broke

The unprecedented intervention in the financial markets by the world’s five largest central banks is the most dramatic illustration yet of the scale of the credit crisis. Already, doubts are surfacing about how effective the decision to pump billions into money markets will be because the underlying problems remain.

There is an air of desperation about the plan to make $100 billion (a comparative drop in the ocean) available to banks that are facing massive losses or that are unable to borrow on money markets and face collapse like Northern Rock. Earlier this week, both the Federal Reserve in the US and the Bank of England cut interest rates in a bid to restore confidence. They failed. Shares fell and mortgage companies were in no hurry to pass the cuts on to borrowers. So the central banks have gone for broke with their new plan.

The largely symbolic intervention by the banks drew a mixed response. Julian Jessop, the chief European economist at Capital Economics, said the move did “not address the underlying imbalances threatening the world economy - notably the impact the US housing slump will still have” while Julian Jessop, chief international economist at Capital Economics, concludes: “Risk premia are likely to remain permanently higher after the excesses of the last few years. The world economy is still facing a marked US-led slowdown in 2008.”

The pro-business Daily Telegraph for one is not sure whether the banks’ intervention will work because the problem is not one of liquidity – financial institutions are, according to the paper, “flush with assets”. The reason they won’t lend to each other is because no one really knows the extent of sub-prime losses competitors carry. For example, only this week, Swiss bank UBS took a $10 billion sub-prime hit and the Federal Home Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac), America's second biggest guarantor of mortgages, revealed $12 billion in losses. Some estimates suggest that a total $3,000 billion in sub-prime debts is lurking in the global financial system.

Says the Telegraph: “There is a nagging fear that we have seen only the tip of the sub-prime iceberg and until a clearer picture emerges of the scale of exposure, banks will continue to sit on their hands, and their assets. Given that capitalism is built on bank lending and lending has always involved an element of risk, how is that lost confidence to be restored?” That’s a good question.

Behind the intervention is the worry that the credit crunch is now affecting the economy in general. US investment bank Morgan Stanley this week forecast a deep recession in America. Consumer spending is falling everywhere as mortgage and credit conditions get tighter. And that is the real crisis for capitalism. If people won’t and can’t spend on credit, the products of the global corporations stay on the shelves and this will trigger a worldwide slump. This is the process we are bang in the middle of now.

In Britain, repossessions are forecast to soar in 2008 as millions on low, fixed-rate mortgages face steep rises in repayments. House prices are falling throughout the country in the absence of buyers. Profit warnings are coming thick and fast as retailers fear poor Christmas sales. What the Telegraph calls a “credit craze fuelled by cheap and plentiful money which underpinned the boom” is over. The wheels have come off the global capitalist, profit-driven economy, with threatening consequences for jobs, homes and international stability. There are, however, not-for-profit alternatives which we outline in our new book, A House of Cards. Make sure these receive the widest circulation and discussion.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Police anger mounts

Apart from Sir Ian Blair, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, is there any other copper who likes this government? Not many, judging by the angry reaction from the men and women in blue to New Labour’s decision to reduce their pay award. An independent commission gave the police 2.5% but home secretary Jacqui Smith refused to backdate it to August, as recommended. Her decision effectively reduces the pay rise to just 1.9%, well below the rate of inflation.

So now the police are talking about forming a trade union and going on strike. You have to go back nearly 90 years for the last time that police truncheons were withdrawn. In August 1918, the National Union of Police and Prison Officers (NUPPO) launched a strike by London police, which was supported by 10,000 out of the 12,000 workforce. The executive of NUPPO demanded a pay increase, improved war bonuses, extension of pension rights to include policemen's widows, a shortening of the pension entitlement period, and an allowance for school-aged children.

The most significant issue was that NUPPO be officially recognised. They won their demands, but the issue of the union was left unresolved. In 1919, police in Liverpool began another series of strikes. This time the union was suppressed by force and every striker was dismissed. The Police Federation, which is no more than a glorified staff association, was imposed on officers and is currently in charge of negotiations with the government.

Anonymous police bloggers are lining up to condemn the government. One has even called for a march on London, while others favour action ranging from all-out strike to a work-to-rule. There is a general air of contempt for the Police Federation negotiators. The prospect of industrial action by police is apparently frightening some ministers and MPs, who fear for their seats as the opinion poll ratings continue to plummet. But it seems the Brown government doesn’t really have a handle on any major issue and dithering is the order of the day (as shown by Brown’s decision to sign the new Euro treaty by himself instead of jointly with other EU leaders!)

As far as the state goes, New Labour had the support of the police while the judiciary fought a rearguard action to defend inroads into their powers and a general onslaught by ministers on the rule of law. The intelligence agencies are still smarting at being politically manoeuvred into spinning the case for the invasion of Iraq while senior civil servants are said to be bemused by how the Brown clique runs (or doesn’t) the machinery of government. Add in the mounting impact of the global financial crisis and things are not looking good for New Labour. Who knows what the outcome of a strike by police might be.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

March on Wall Street

The jailing of press baron Conrad Black for defrauding shareholders has captured the headlines this morning. Black’s $32 million theft is simply the tip of an iceberg of what may be viewed as an entirely criminal situation in the world of business and finance. Black’s six and a half years in jail will perhaps seem small to the millions of people around the world who are imprisoned by debt for their entire lives - while traders play the financial markets to notch up record profits.

The fact is that 2008 is set to be the year when debts come home to roost. And, as credit becomes harder to obtain, debt is changing from being a millstone around their necks, into a nightmare. Mortgages have helped people afford a roof over their heads, whilst at the same time locking them into repayments they can ill afford. But now comes the nightmare of repossession.

In the United States, things are now so bad that people have taken to the streets – Wall Street to be exact – to protest against the way in which black communities and ethnic minorities have been hit especially hard. Yesterday, demonstrators paraded through the centre of US big business to protest against the eviction of millions of homeowners, the first ever march to target the financial markets. US civil rights leader, Jesse Jackson, who has campaigned for economic empowerment since he joined Martin Luther King as far back as 1965, led the march. He has spoken on U-tube of a financial tsunami in the US and last Friday called for a Marshall Plan to provide relief to people who lost homes and savings in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal.

The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, which organised the New York rally and a second one in Chicago, said in a statement:

“As the mortgage market continues to decline, millions of home-owners could face foreclosure in the coming year. Unfortunately, a disproportionate number of those home-owners are minorities who were targeted for sub-prime, predatory loans”.

Like his mentor, Martin Luther King, Jackson sees the issue of debt as a class question as much as an ethnic issue. In Chicago, where Jackson’s Rainbow Push coalition is based in a former synagogue, 30% of homes are in foreclosure. In Detroit’s Wayne County, a quarter of homeowners are in default, as Danny Schechter reports.

Lest anyone thinks these problems are unique to America, just look at what is coming up here. The lead story in today’s Times notes that as shoppers are set to blow a record £11.7 billion on their credit cards this Christmas, the new year will bring nothing but pain. It concludes:

“There are fears that the credit crunch will have a devastating effect on some families which are already deep in debt. Nearly 5 million people have still not paid off their store and credit card bills from a year ago, according to”

It is time to get real. We need to work out a bold programme for a not-for-profit economy, not rely on the same politicians who have worshipped at the shrine of capitalism for all their lives.

Corinna Lotz
AWTW secretary

Monday, December 10, 2007

Consumerism from cradle to grave

Not so long ago, I was amazed to find that my neighbour’s six-year-old boy knew more brand names than I did, as he swept around identifying every gadget in my flat, from Dell, HP, to Sony. I shouldn’t have been surprised at all. The average 10-year-old is now aware of between 300 and 400 different brands. Young people are exposed to about 10,000 TV adverts per year, as well as pop-ups on the Internet.

A number of new studies, including a report by the government’s own Department for Children, Schools and Families, point to the serious damage to children’s health and education resulting from over-exposure to marketing.

Britain’s biggest teaching union, the National Union of Teachers, accuses companies of using psychologists to target children in a way that seriously damages their health and well-being. The NUT’s study, the most comprehensive to date, has found that marketing strategies are highly damaging, leading to ill-health and unhappiness. Eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia result from unrealistic expectations about what they “should” look like. NUT general secretary, Steve Sinnot says that teachers are increasingly concerned by the “lifestyle pressures exerted on children by the advertising and marketing industries…. There are dangerous consequences for the physical and mental health of young people.”

According to the media watchdog, Ofcom, 92% of advertising before 9pm is for products high in sugar, sale and fat. Perhaps most shocking is the fact that nearly three-quarters of seven-year-old girls want to be slimmer. More than half of children know that someone has been bullied for not owning the latest gadgets or clothing, and nearly a third are dissatisfied with the way they look.

Educationalist Sue Palmer, says, “Marketers’ interest in the under-10s is at an all-time high… They’re grooming children to be consumers from an early age – and since consumption doesn’t buy happiness, it’s not surprising that one in 10 children is now diagnosed with a mental disorder.” The only reassuring aspect of the wanton destruction of childhood by commercialisation is that children themselves are keenly aware of the damaging side of the pressure to wear the “right” labels and to conform. Nearly 70 per cent of them say there is too much pressure to look perfect and wear the latest fashions.

But none of this will deter the government, nor Brown’s right-hand man, Schools Secretary Ed Balls from his crusade to replace existing schools with “academies”, sponsored by big businesses, often with their own ideological agendas. In this, they are seamlessly aligned with pro-business councils, whether New Labour or Tory.

In Tory-controlled Westminster, for example, the iconic comprehensive, Pimlico School, is about to be handed over to a Tory party donor and venture capitalist, John Nash. Nash is a former chairman of the British Venture Capital Association, and chairman of a leading private equity provider, Sovereign Capital. The council is riding roughshod over the results of its own consultation about the future of the school which showed that 92% wanted it to remain a community comprehensive school, with 4% for trust and 4% academy. Pimlico School Association has also voted that the school should keep its current status.

Corinna Lotz
AWTW secretary
10 December 2007

Friday, December 07, 2007

Basic rights reduced to a lottery

For this government, civil liberties are something to be subjected to a kind of lottery. You draw a number out of the hat and that becomes the number of days you can detain someone without charge on the suspicion of committing a terror offence. The rules are fixed, however, by comparison with the real game of chance. Under New Labour’s National Security Lottery Rules, the number chosen must always result in a longer period of detention than is already the case.

It began with the Terrorism Act 2000, which introduced the first breach in the ancient liberty of habeas corpus, which as far back as the 11th century stated that no person should be detained without charge. The 2000 Act introduced a seven day limit on pre-charge detention, which was lengthened to 14 days maximum under the Criminal Justice Act 2003. In 2005, Tony Blair went for the Big Lottery Detention Prize and tried for 90 days. He suffered his first Commons defeat but the government still managed to get the period extended to 28 days.

Not to be outdone, new prime minister Gordon Brown wanted that period doubled to 56 days. Why 56 and not 50 or 47? No one knows. Perhaps the cabinet drew numbers out of a hat to show how tough they are on terrorism. And the “justification” or evidence for abolishing basic rights? David Winnick, the Labour MP who led the revolt against Blair’s 90 days, says: “No evidence has been produced in my view – and in the view of a good number of other people who have taken a close interest in this matter - that any extension is necessary."

The only significant voice in support of the proposal to extend detention is that of Sir Ian Blair, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, whose force got off scot free after executing the innocent Jean Charles de Menezes on a Tube train. Even New Labour’s former attorney general Lord Goldsmith is opposed to the plan, along with the director of public prosecution, Sir Ken Macdonald.

So now home secretary Jacqui Smith has come up with a new number – 42 days. In a pathetic bid to get this through parliament, she is proposing that the government should get the power to introduce 42 days detention with MPs being allowed to give retrospective approval on each case. Anyone can work out that by the time MPs get round to discussing the matter, the suspect would have been held for 42 days in any case! Tim Hancock, UK campaigns director of Amnesty International, said the plan would rob people of their basic rights, adding that "no amount of parliamentary window-dressing can disguise that fact”.

Britain already holds terror suspects far longer without charge than any other country in the world. If New Labour gets its way, the period will rise to the point where it amounts to internment or imprisonment without trial. And from holding terror suspects to detaining political activists and campaigners would be but a short leap.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Who killed Sajida Khan?

As the World Bank plans its launch of a new carbon fund at the United Nations climate conference in Bali, activists worldwide will pay tribute to the woman who spent her last breath resisting one of its most controversial projects. Sajida Khan won the struggle against the project when the Bank pulled out of the toxic South African landfill. But sadly, Khan passed away on 15 July 2007 in her Durban home.

Aged 55 her fragile but vibrant, uncompromising life endured several bouts of debilitating cancer. The dump that the government promised to close in 1987 is still open and thriving. Indeed, plans for new carbon financing were sealed by the South African government even before the Bali conference. The Bali conference is likely to generate a lot of hot air as it searches for climate solutions, but as government delegations debate yet more market-based policies for the post-Kyoto era we should pause and reflect upon who really killed Khan?

Meet the suspects and consider their motives:
1) Bisasar Road’s original design team of apartheid bureaucrats who in 1980 dumped what became Africa’s largest formal garbage heap in the middle of a nature reserve in the mixed-race residential neighbourhood of Clare Estate.

2) Operators of the illegal medical waste incinerator parked at Bisasar during the 1990s, sprinkling toxins onto Khan and her neighbours until its belated closure.

3) Durban Solid Waste for not terminating the dump as repeatedly promised. It runs a methane incineration system that spews yet more cancerous ingredients - dioxins, lead, cadmium — into the toxic soup around Bisasar.

4) The World Bank team who met Durban officials in 2002, persuading them that the dumpsite should remain open for seven to twenty more years. The reason? To capture carbon credits by selling investments in Bisasar methane-to-electricity operations to global polluters, who in turn will face less pressure to cut their own emissions.

5) The Kyoto Protocol – meant to turn the corner on climate change – is thus also a suspect. It established a ‘free market’ in carbon credits that would permit polluters in the North to purchase shares in ‘Clean Development Mechanism’ projects like Bisasar, instead of reducing their own greenhouse gases.

6) Major international polluters ranging from Big Oil to the Dutch government, who are the buyers of this “privatised air”.

7) Other landfill sites in Durban’s Marianhill and La Mercy suburbs, which are also supported by the World Bank’s Prototype Carbon Fund.

8) Who can forget the role of the [South Africa’s] national Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism? According to the National Climate Change Response Strategy, citizens must understand “up-front” how the “Clean Development Mechanism primarily presents a range of commercial opportunities, both big and small. This could be a very important source of foreign direct investment’. Khan and her Durban Group comrades considered this position a form of eco-prostitution equivalent to accepting toxic waste for a pittance.

9) Then there’s the South African economy itself, addicted to fossil fuels and the world’s cheapest energy. The US is the world’s largest CO2 emitter in absolute terms, but in relative terms SA emits 20 times more of that gas than the US, measured by each unit of output per person. That in turn has made Pretoria aware of the need for even rotten offset projects like Bisasar, so as to market SA’s feeble attempts to cut back on greenhouse emissions.

This blog is drawn from an article published in Alter-Eco, which is being produced by groups who have come together to make a unified call in support of real solutions to climate change and against the false market-based solutions that are being implemented under the Kyoto Protocol.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The emperor has no clothes

In the four months since the advent of the credit crunch in the global financial markets caught Northern Rock with its pants down, the chorus of ritual assurances about the soundness of the economic fundamentals has given way to doom-laden panic. A recent “emperor-has-no-clothes” statement from former US Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers opened the floodgates on admissions about the depth and breadth of the worsening crisis, together with dire predictions and warnings about its damaging effects.

Summers says that even if “necessary changes” in policy were implemented, the “odds now favour a US recession that slows growth significantly on a global basis”. He also believes that without stronger policy responses than have been observed to date, “there is the risk that the adverse impacts will be felt for the rest of this decade and beyond”. His assessment of the US housing market brings into the open predictions which had so far only been muted murmurs on the sidelines. Summers says that “indicators suggest that the housing sector may be in free-fall from what felt like the basement levels of a few months ago” and predicts prices could fall by as much as 25%.

In a shocking admission of the uselessness of the economic models used by forecasters, Summers is concerned that “we do not have comparable experiences on which to base predictions about what this will mean for the overall economy”. Put another way, the people who supposedly run the economy have no idea what the future holds.

Meanwhile, in Britain the Financial Services Authority (FSA) says there is "a very real prospect" that financial conditions will worsen next year because of the global credit crunch. The implication is that a number of smaller mortgage companies could go under because of difficulties in raising cash. An key indicator of the crisis is the soaring inter-bank lending rate, which is far higher than the official bank rate. .

As for debt-laden “home owners”, prospects are bleak indeed. Clive Briault, the FSA's retail managing director, says that more than 1.4 million borrowers on fixed-rate, short-term mortgages are due to come off their favourable terms next year. Many of them will have to pay higher interest rates as a result, which will contribute to the pressure on consumer spending. Other may not be so fortunate. Briault said that at the bottom end of market, the so-called sub-prime sector that focused on people with poor or non-existent credit histories, many borrowers "may not have access to the market at any price". Bluntly, they face losing their homes.

A House of Cards, our new publication, lays bare the intimate, mutually-dependent connection between the emergence of a web of transnational corporations during the uneven period of global growth, and the vast clouds of credit and debt needed to make it happen. There’s no pleasure in history proving us right, but it does mean that we’re able to see beyond the current crisis. A House of Cards offers the outlines of solutions based on collective ownership, self-management and replacing the profit motive with production for need. Get yourself a copy!

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Miners in challenge to ANC

Not a lot has changed for South Africa’s 500,000 miners since the end of apartheid. Most days, a miner is killed as he labours in unsafe conditions to extract precious metals for sale by the mining corporations. Today, members of the 270,000-strong Miners Union of South Africa stage a 24-hour strike against the rising death toll. Some 201 miners have been killed in accidents so far this year, compared with 199 for the whole of 2006.

The union expects some 40,000 members to march on the Chamber of Mines in Johannesburg, which includes famous names like AngloGold Ashanti, Gold Fields, Harmony Gold, Anglo Platinum, Impala Platinum and Lonmin. South African miners produce three-quarters of the world's platinum and more than a 10th of its gold in shafts that are up to 3.78 kilometres underground.

South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki ordered a safety audit of the country's mines after 3,200 workers were temporarily trapped at Harmony Gold Mining’s Elandsrand operation in October, but the death rate has continued to rise. Despite ever-rising prices for precious metals, especially gold and platinum, the owners have failed to invest in improved safety measures.

The owners know that there is a massive pool of unemployed workers ready to work in dangerous conditions, especially in mines where the union is not strong. Those who extract the fabulous wealth that lies underground, just like the poor workers in the townships, are treated with contempt, or are at best targets for token acts of charity while the mine owners and the country’s ruling political elite live off the fruits of their labour.

Miners are not the only South African workers battling for a decent standard of living 17 years after the ending of apartheid. In Cape Town, work is underway on a showpiece new stadium for the 2010 World Cup. It is a 68,000-seat arena within sight of the notorious Robben Island, where Nelson Mandel was imprisoned for years under the apartheid regime. The city’s newest icon has already been the subject of strikes and protests.

The government is spending R420bn [£30.1bn] on the 2010 World Cup and related infrastructure projects. Fifa is making a big show of providing affordable tickets for the poor. It has announced that the cheapest tickets for games will be sold only to South Africa residents for about $20, and a further 120,000 will be given away to the lowest paid. But even at $20, tickets are beyond the reach of ordinary workers who are building the stadium. So the World Cup is simply another profit-making bonanza for contractors and the media.

President Mbeki and his deputy Jacob Zuma are presently engaged in a struggle for the leadership of the ANC at its conference later this month. Zuma’s left demagogy has won him widespread backing, despite his pro-business policies and association with corruption. Today’s one-day strike is an indication that the working class needs to go beyond the ANC and its grip on power to carry through the social revolution against capitalist corporations.

Corinna Lotz
AWTW secretary

Monday, December 03, 2007

Stalemate in Venezuela

The narrow 51%-49% defeat for Hugo Chavez in a referendum on the constitution is a potentially dangerous moment for Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution. Emboldened by their victory, the anti-Chavez movement will undoubtedly look to the United States for support in yet another attempt to overthrow the president.

The vote represents the first major electoral defeat for Chavez after nine years in which he has won three general elections and two referendums. During this time, Chavez has tried to develop an accountable state that could facilitate a process of transition from reform to revolution. Sunday’s referendum was intended to approve Chavez’s plans to run for re-election indefinitely, give him increased powers and create the structure for what he called a socialist state in Venezuela. The reforms also included stronger powers for the president to seize private property and to censor the media during emergencies. There were also proposals to cut the working day from eight hours to six, extend social security benefits to informal workers, such as street vendors and lower the voting age to 16.

While the middle class in the shape of some students, business groups, opposition parties, the media and the Roman Catholic Church all lined up against Chavez ahead of the referendum vote, his support amongst the poor and the working class failed to be mobilised in sufficient numbers. There were reports that his own supporters were more concerned about soaring crime, inflation and food shortages. In the end, about 56% of voters turned out.

The political stalemate in Venezuela is connected to the unwillingness by Chavez to acknowledge the strategic necessity of a qualitative break with the capitalist state and its replacement with truly democratic alternative structures in the hands of the masses. Impressive reforms in education and health, and the curbing of big business, have led to the notion that the state can be transformed into an instrument of the revolution. But the basic objective fact is that the economy remains dominated by the role of the transnational corporations and global capital. At best, Chavez has been able to negotiate better terms with the TNCs, which have indeed brought benefits to the people, but the basic domination of capital over labour remains intact.

The ruling class of Venezuela is disgruntled because they perceive the state to be no longer acting in their overall social interests. They have been prepared to give support to various attempts to overthrow the Chavez regime in order to regain control of the state. So, what we have is an extremely complex and dialectical situation whereby the capitalist state is weakened, and yet in the last analysis it still remains a bourgeois state. For the revolution to consolidate its gains, this is what has to change. The democratic constitution has to be transformed from a formal document into a reality by the mass action of workers and peasants. People should not wait for a lead from Chavez. The same goes for the issue of challenging capital. If the state is unwilling to challenge the power of the TNCs, the working class should take a lead and develop real workers’ control, the revolutionary alternative to co-management.

The calling of a representative conference to develop a strategy for implementing the constitution in a complete way, could show that its aims can only be realised through the overthrow of the power of the TNCs. There is no doubt that Chavez’s reforms have increased workers’ confidence in their abilities, and sense of material well-being. But these advances can only develop further if the limitations of utilising the existing state are understood and a conscious struggle for revolutionary change is prepared.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor