Friday, February 29, 2008

New drugs 'strategy', same result

Another week, another government “10-year strategy” aimed at grabbing the tabloid headlines with get-tough policies that might even pull in a few votes. Sounds cynical? It’s not when you examine the facts. The latest “war on drugs” strategy is much like the last one, which even had a “Drugs Czar” in charge for a time.

While the new “strategy” makes a few worthy nods in the direction of education and support for families, its main emphasis is – you may have guessed by now – on punishment. Drug users who miss rehab treatment face having their state benefits withdrawn, which would leave them penniless and on the streets.

Another gem is the proposal to seize assets from alleged drug dealers – after an arrest but before any charge, let alone conviction. That’s another blow against the rule of law and the principle that you remain innocent until proven guilty. Then there are the targets plucked out of the air but with enforcement in mind. By 2009, says the paper, the police are required to issue an additional 2,000 conditional cautions

The drugs agency Release was scathing about the proposal to remove income benefits for those who fail to engage in treatment, saying it simplifies addiction. “The strategy paper recognises that many of those affected by drug addiction come from the most vulnerable and poverty stricken segments of society. Yet, the removal of benefits would compound this position. To leave people without income for a prolonged period, newspaper reports suggested up to 26 weeks in a ‘three strike’ rule, would result in many having no option but to resort to crime. This clearly is a counter-productive approach.”

A rise in the use of drugs in society is undoubtedly connected to increased levels of alienation produced by our intense, consumer-oriented society. The market economy depends to a greater extent on low-wage, flexible labour and destroys more skilled jobs than it creates. Many working-class communities are deprived of job opportunities that are both sustainable and meaningful. These deep structural inequalities are, of course, totally ignored by New Labour’s plans.

Globalisation has also created an international, large-scale business in drugs, which operates like any other industry. The market is highly competitive, which ensures that prices remain low and within reach of most sections in society. There are an estimated 332,000 problem drug users in England and it estimated that heroin and cocaine use costs £15.4bn a year in crime and health costs. Between a third and a half of theft and burglary is estimated to be drug-related. The illegal drug market is estimated to be worth between £4bn and £6.6bn a year. Prices of heroin and cocaine have continued to fall, partly as a consequence of the UK-US invasion of Afghanistan, where production has soared. As a recent report by the Royal Society of Arts acknowledged: “There is no reason to think that the illegal drugs business and its accompanying market can simply be closed down. Certainly all efforts so far to close them down have been dismal and often expensive failures.”

A rational policy would start from these wider social issues and begin a process of decriminalising drug use to end the control of supply by international crime gangs. In Portugal, depenalising drugs has halved the total of drug deaths since 2001. Sending people to prison, stopping their benefits and driving users underground is totally counter-productive. It does, however, grab the headlines and is attractive to the right-wing readership of papers like the Daily Mail. And that’s what counts in Whitehall.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

Thursday, February 28, 2008

'More like Mafia than democracy'

As Russia moves towards its coronation – sorry, presidential election – this Sunday, the clampdown on the autocracy’s political opponents continues to tighten. The outcome is already decided, as President Putin has anointed Dimitry Medvedev as his successor. But just to make sure, the authorities have been using every trick in the book to clamp down on freedom of expression, assembly and association.

This week Amnesty International published a report, Freedom Limited documenting the use of vague legislation to harass anyone expressing their opinion and standing up for their rights. Amnesty outlined the hydra-headed attack on opposition demonstrations, human rights activists, journalists, radio stations like Ekho Moskvy, non-governmental organisations, friendship societies like the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society – indeed any independent organisation that voices criticism of the authoritarian regime.

The investigation into the murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya has run into the sand as authorities high up in the regime are clearly protecting those who ordered the killing. The international Committee to Protect Journalists has warned about the high casualty rate for journalists in Russia.

According to International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) analyst John Crowfoot, Russia is currently the most dangerous place to be a journalist, after Iraq. He has produced a database that outlines the deaths and disappearances of 289 journalists in Russia since 1993. The youngest to have died is a 19-year-old reporter killed last September; the oldest, a retired journalist of 80, was stabbed to death in his home a few years ago. Forty-seven of those killed were women.

Another independent human rights organisation, Article 19 has warned repeatedly about the use of defamation laws to suppress criticism of public figures and powerful individuals against the media. “Criminal defamation” laws have led to imprisonment in three cases over the past two years.

In Nizhniy Novgorod, a city of 1.5 million people, police beat up demonstrators, while in Nazran, Ingushetia demonstrators were wounded and 60 people were detained. Three Moscow television journalists and Oleg Orlov, a member of Memorial organisation were abducted from a hotel, beaten and left in a field by unidentified men wearing masks. Before the December parliamentary elections, workers at state-owned plants and public sector workers were virtually ordered to vote for Putin’s party or lose their jobs.

And it gets worse. Today the IFJ called on journalists’ unions around the world to join protests over a “cynical campaign” by Russian political bosses to close down the Russian Union of Journalists, the country’s largest non-governmental organisation. For the past year state agencies in Moscow have been trying to evict the Russian Union from premises they have occupied for almost 30 years and which they were promised ownership of by previous governments claiming the building is unsafe.

Now the RUJ has learned that the government is trying to sell the building to a private owner and in the process put the RUJ on the street. “The Russian Union has been one of the most strident critics of government pressure on independent journalism,” said Aidan White, IFJ General Secretary. “It is the victim of intimidation and a cynical campaign by its political opponents who have failed to close the union using trumped charges of breaching fire regulations, now are trying to sell off offices that the union insists are legally their own.”

Even world-famous personalities like chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov, who tried to stand as a candidate against Putin was arrested last November along with 200 other people. He spent 28 days in a Moscow jail. After his release, Kasparov did not mince his words: “Putin wants to rule like Stalin but live like Abramovich [the oligarch who owns Chelsea FC]. Putin’s system is more like Mafia than democracy.” Sounds like the time is ripe for another Russian Revolution.

Corinna Lotz
AWTW secretary

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Making money out of unhappiness

Global drug corporations have been making make millions out of people’s unhappiness. Now it turns out that the drugs don’t work and the 40 million people taking anti-depressants like Prozac and Seroxat, and the doctors prescribing them, may have been duped.

Professor Irving Kirsch from the University of Hull, has brought together all the research into these drugs – including clinical trials that the manufacturers chose not to publish. He and his colleagues in the US and Canada found that in patients with mild to moderate depression, the effects are no better than taking a placebo. Only the most severely depressed patients seemed to do better, but even that may be because the placebo effect faded, rather than that the drug helped.

Drug companies insist they need their vast profits to invest in research. But in this case, as in many others, it is clear that it is only the profits that matter – the research has been suppressed.The drive for profits has other damaging side-effects. Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BCGI) report that hundreds of medicinal plant species, whose naturally-occurring chemicals make up the basis of over 50% of prescription drugs, are threatened with extinction.

BCGI warns of a global healthcare crisis if action is not taken to halt the decimation of plants, many of whose properties cannot be synthesised. For example the most widely-used cancer drug, Paclitaxel, extracted from the yew tree bark, has defied all attempts to recreate it in the laboratory. But the trees are running out fast. In China’s Yunnan province, once famous for yew forests, 80% of the trees were used up in just three years.

The high consumption approach to health feeds off, emphasises and invents ‘life-style symptoms’ to provide new markets for old and new drugs, whilst millions with treatable diseases like HIV-AIDS and malaria are left to die. Where depression had been rated at 50 cases per million of the population in the early 60s, by the 90s this had jumped to 100,000.

These remarkable changes coincided with the crisis in the market for minor tranquilisers such as Librium and Valium, prescribed for anxiety. As these widely used drugs were found to be highly addictive, it looked as if a substantial market was about to collapse. Hundreds of thousands of people took these drugs and the economic gains were enormous. Anxiety had to be remarketed and new agents found to respond to it. And this is where depression started to really take off as a diagnosis.

To live a happier, healthier life actually means living in opposition to the consumer culture and that is hard to do on your own. We need to join together to take some radical action. We need to make sustainable drugs research a part of socialised health care, taking control of the land and research away from the big corporations, in order to halt the destruction of plants and species. Neither plant species nor we ourselves can survive unless we overcome the alienating rule of the global corporations. We will all feel a lot better if we can have relationships with nature - and with each other - that are not mediated through a profit-making transaction.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Global food crisis grows

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) is warning that it will be forced to abandon millions of people to starvation, as sharp increases in food prices eat into its funds. International market prices for wheat, corn, soya beans and dozens of other commodities have doubled or trebled in recent years.

The main focus of the WFP to date has been to provide aid in areas where food was unavailable. But the programme now faces having to help countries where the price of food, rather than shortages, is the problem. Josette Sheeran, WFP executive director, said the agency - the world’s largest humanitarian programme - would look at “cutting the food rations or even the number or people reached” if donors did not provide more money.

The price jump in agricultural commodities – such as wheat, corn, rice and soya beans – is having a wider impact than thought, hitting countries that have previously largely escaped hunger. The WFP says that in response to rising food costs, families in developing countries were moving in some cases from three meals a day to just one, or dropping a diverse diet to rely on one staple food.

Egypt has widened its food rationing system for the first time in two decades while Pakistan has reintroduced a ration card system that was abandoned in the mid-1980s. Countries such as China and Russia are imposing price controls while others, such as Argentina and Vietnam, are enforcing foreign sales taxes or export bans.

The WFP’s warning came just hours after Richard Branson launched another bio-fuelled stunt to publicise his continuing campaign for a greener, cleaner, and altogether kinder capitalism. And the connection between these two events?

There are many factors contributing to rising food prices – strong demand from rapidly developing countries like China and India; the sharply increased price of oil for agriculture, shipping and fertiliser production, a rising global population; more frequent floods and droughts caused by climate change. But the biggest impact comes from the shift to biofuels.

In the space of a few years, the US has diverted about 40m tonnes of maize to produce bioethanol – about 4% of global production of coarse grains. That rapid growth is largely the result of government subsidies as the fading global power struggles to reduce its dependence on carbon-based oil imported from the Middle East.

A report from the Nature Conservancy and the University of Minnesota has raised serious questions over how biofuels are grown. Converting rainforests, peatlands, savannahs or grasslands to grow fuel crops releases CO2, in some cases a staggering 420 times more CO2 than from burning fossil fuel, the report says. Using fertiliser on biofuel crops will emit enough nitrous oxide (more than 296 times more powerful heat trapping gas than CO2) to wipe out all the carbon savings biofuels produce, say other sources. Biofuel crops could also put an unbearable strain on the global water supply, say Swedish researchers.

Far from providing a green alternative to fossil fuels, there is a danger that the struggle to sustain capitalist production through biofuels will trigger a vicious cycle of a food versus fuel competition over which will yield the most profit. This will lead to further food shortages, drive up food prices, and encourage even more farmers to choose to grow fuel over food crops to meet the increasing demand - and clear more land in the process. The choice is becoming simpler: either starvation on a global scale or the transformation of economic and political systems, transferring the power over life and death away from greedy corporations and into the hands of the majority who have real needs.

Gerry Gold
AWTW economics editor

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Heathrow eco-vandalism

The government’s plans to expand Heathrow Airport have succeeded in one respect. They have created a veritable mass movement in opposition to the proposed third runway and new terminals. Local people, campaign groups, environmental organisations, direct action activists, local councils and MPs from all political parties have united against New Labour’s eco-vandalism.

The official “consultation” closes this week but campaigners should not hold their breath, however many people reject the plans. Transport secretary Ruth Kelly has essentially decided the government’s view in advance. She is backing the British Airports Authority’s (BAA) expansion scheme. She has claimed: “If nothing changes, Heathrow’s status as a world-class airport will be gradually eroded, jobs will be lost and the economy will suffer.”

Hers is a typical New Labour argument. The impact on the environment becomes secondary - business comes first. In a globalised capitalist economy, the role of government is to create conditions for inward investment in competition with other countries. So Heathrow must expand and be modernised to make it more attractive for executives and corporate interests.

As for the consultation itself, Hacan (Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise) Clearskies, has already exposed it as a sham. Documents reveal that the Department for Transport (DfT) and BAA, owned by the global corporation Ferrovial, worked together on the wording of the consultation and on “how to handle difficult questions” at public exhibitions. The response form is incomprehensible to any resident without technical knowledge, says Hacan. Neither the form nor the summary, for example, explain what is meant by a “57dBA Leq noise contour”.

Maps of the proposed new flight paths are not included in the response form. Thousands of people across wide swathes of London therefore have no idea that the plans would affect them. Hacan estimates that the consultation should have included up to two million people in South East London and many other places rather than 200,000 response forms that have gone out. Hacan concludes: “The consultation is deeply flawed. It has added to the deep distrust there is of the government (and of the DfT in particular) by the governed. The consultation documents should have been withdrawn.”

The expansion plans will have a major impact on carbon emissions. The World Development Movement has calculated that the annual emissions from the third runway alone would be the same as Kenya’s. New Labour claims that the European Emissions Trading System will take care of this issue. This is the process where the aviation industry buys permits to pollute from other industries. Another market mechanism designed to reinforce the status quo rather than deal with the issue of cutting emissions.

The impact on the local community will be devastating. The government has admitted that a third runway would require at least 700 homes to be demolished. Local experts estimate it would be much more. “We would see destruction of homes and communities, the forced removal of people, on a scale possibly unmatched for 100 years in this country. All to make way for expansion of the airport that would cause serious noise and climate change problems and which is unlikely to contribute much to the economy,” says Hacan which is organising a mass rally in London tonight.

What campaigners have to consider is what to do when the government, inevitably, declines to listen and respond to the just concerns of people who will be affected by a third runway. In fact, it’s a common problem. Not just New Labour but the whole political system is so tied to corporate interests that the parliamentary democratic system has become a dead duck. Fighting the Heathrow expansion plans means seriously considering sustainable and democratic alternatives to both corporate power and what passes for a democratic process.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

Friday, February 22, 2008

Crime and punishment

Perhaps it could be a two-part question set for those taking a “citizenship test” to prove that they know about British values before getting a passport (or an ID card). How big is the prison population and what distinguishes the country’s record in jailing people? Answer: the prison population in England and Wales has risen to a record high of 82,006 - 21 places short of capacity; nowhere in Western Europe jails more of its population than England and Wales, where about 147 people per 100,000 are in prison.

New Labour has presided over a rise of more than one third in prison numbers since 1997. When it first came into government, the prison population was 60,131. The increase is not surprising since during the same period, the state has created more than 3,000 new criminal offences and ministers have ratcheted up the rhetoric on crime to appease the middle-class law-and-order brigade. More than half of prisoners serve less than six months and about one in five prisoners is being held on remand.

While new social house building has slumped under New Labour, some 17,000 extra prison spaces have been created. A further 8,000 are planned. It is clear where the government’s priorities lie. But like most of this government’s policies, they are simply not working. So after years of urging courts to jail anyone and everyone, justice secretary Jack Straw today calls on magistrates to send fewer people to prison – presumably until the prison building programme can catch up.

The causes of crime are complex but in a period of comparative prosperity it is clear that significant numbers of people remain excluded and alienated from mainstream consumer society. So in 2006, the second biggest group sentenced to prison were convicted of drugs offences and about 8,500 of burglary. Almost half of prisoners ran away as a child - compared to 11% of the general population. About one in three female and half of male prisoners were excluded from school and a majority have no qualifications. Less than 5% of the general population have two or more mental disorders, compared to 72% of male and 70% of female sentenced prisoners.

Locking up people in overcrowded prisons as a punishment and a supposed deterrent simply doesn’t work. Re-offending rates among offenders are high - about two thirds are reconvicted within two years of release. Among men aged 18-21 the rate is about three quarters. Over half of offenders receive no training. And only one in five of prisoners exceed the standards expected of an 11 year old in writing. Nearly one in three will not have somewhere to live upon release. A majority of prisoners will have no job to go to and six out of 10 employers automatically exclude those with a criminal record.

The prison system reflects the class divided and unequal society we live in, where the political elites play to the gallery with their crude divisions of people into “good” and “evil”. Prison is viewed, in a simple, medieval way, as a means of inflicting punishment, of retribution rather than a possible route to rehabilitation and integration.

Globalised capitalist society has destroyed meaningful, well-paid jobs in many areas of the country, especially for men, adding to the sense of social exclusion. Those numbers will increase as economic recession bites, adding to the tendency to offend. In framing alternatives to New Labour’s über-competitive society, we must rethink the whole approach to offending and prison to create a system that reflects the society we would like to have, and not the one that Straw presides over.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Debt tsunami builds

The emergency legislation to allow a temporary period of public ownership of what now seems are the most worthless parts of Northern Rock, is increasingly looking like a finger plugging a hole in the dyke (or levee for American readers) as the global financial system continues to haemorrhage on debt.

On Wednesday, credit markets were thrown into fresh turmoil as the cost of protecting the debt of US and European companies against default surged to all-time highs, and Alliance and Leicester, another former building society, revealed that it had joined the ranks of deeply troubled banks. Money flowed out of the credit markets and into oil, driving the closing price of a barrel of crude above $100 for the first time.

Earlier this week, shortly after Credit Suisse’s auditors gave it the thumbs up, and it issued its annual bonuses, the investment bank was suddenly forced to reveal a £2.85 billion hole in its accounts. The heads of some of its traders in “synthetic collateralised debt obligations” rolled. Credit Suisse is just one of the many fundamentally unsound financial institutions to be reporting its audited accounts at this time of year.

Market watchers were looking closely to discover the hiding places of the remaining estimated $280 billion of so far unreported losses spun off from oversold and toxic sub-prime mortgage debt. Each new revelation delivers another painful shock to global markets, building irresistibly into a debt tsunami.

But the sub-prime debt mountain is just the visible tip of an iceberg, rapidly melting in response to a changing global climate. The hugely profitable market in debt-based derivative products developed towards the end of the 20th century. Initially, it was a relatively small part of the ballooning of fictitious capital needed to finance the growth of immensely productive globalising corporations and the credit-based purchase of their commodities.

As the global rate of growth per capita continued to decline, the pressure for more sources of finance to offset declining profits increased. Prominent amongst the apparently secure bases for credit expansion was property – both housing and commercial. If economic growth could be funded it would guarantee a highly profitable income stream from speculative new building and office rental. If people, individuals and families, could be persuaded to take out mortgages, they would be tied into decades-long repayments – another lucrative income stream. New homes guaranteed a demand for new products to fill them and the financing infrastructure that would be needed to help people pay for them, many times over.

So it was that the need for housing and the accumulated savings of millions of ordinary people invested in mutually owned building societies since the 19th century were converted for use by City spivs, high-rolling global gamblers and market traders in red braces. Northern Rock demutualised in 1997 exactly five months after the election of the first New Labour government.

Now, the determining factor of its future is the rapidly declining value of its mortgage book - the 700,000 households who are increasingly unable to make their monthly payments. And decline it surely will. As Martin Wolf, the Financial Times’ leading analyst, is now acknowledging : “The connection between the bursting of the housing bubble and the fragility of the financial system has created huge dangers, for the US and the rest of the world.”

New Labour can never repeat the Northern Rock bail-out. Not only would it bankrupt the state, it would also make no difference as decades of debt-fuelled expansion unwind. There is an alternative to making the entire population having to pay for the mother of all capitalist financial and economic meltdowns. Not-for-profit solutions to housing and other needs are well-known and well understood. They involve co-ownership, mutuality, not-for-profit finance, and a building programme targeted at need rather than what the market will bear. There is no alternative.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Cuba at the crossroads

The chorus from the White House and Downing Street was entirely predictable (and so hypocritical). On hearing about the retirement of Fidel Castro as the president of Cuba, those pre-eminent world leaders and exemplary champions of human rights, George Bush and Gordon Brown, said that they hoped that the island state would now move “towards democracy”. It was enough to make you throw up!

Coming from leaders of governments that in recent years have brought us state torture, extraordinary rendition, detention without trial, illegal invasions of other countries, persecution of minorities, a surveillance state and close relations with dictatorships like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan, their statements went way off the double-standards meter.

Castro’s Cuban revolution of 1959 became a thorn in the side of successive American governments in particular. He outlasted nine US presidents in defending the independence of Cuba and its right to choose its own path of development. Castro survived several CIA assassination plots and the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 authorised by President Kennedy. Where the US wanted another client state in the Caribbean fit for American corporate interests, Castro led Cuba in another direction with contradictory results.

What began as a national revolution against the corrupt and criminal Batista US-backed dictatorship developed into an imitation of a Soviet-style regime under which capitalist property became state owned. Castro’s forces merged with the Cuban Communist Party, which was Stalinist in its outlook. Seeing an opportunity to develop its presence in the Caribbean, Moscow backed Castro, supplied the country with oil and Cuba became a pawn in the Cold War to the point where nuclear war was only narrowly avoided in the missiles crisis of October 1962. Moscow’s perfidious influence was a significant factor in Castro’s close comrade Che Guevara’s decision to leave Cuba in 1965 to take part in revolutionary guerrilla struggles in Africa and Latin America until his betrayal and execution in Bolivia in 1967.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Cuba was forced to rely even more on its own resources – human as well as economic. Despite an American economic embargo that has lasted for 45 years, the achievements have been amazing in terms of health, literacy and sport. Cuba has developed one of the most advanced free health systems in the world and actually exports doctors to help developing countries, while its literacy rate is higher than that of the United States. But its enforced isolation from the world economy has also thwarted economic development and the standard of living of the average Cuban is comparatively low.

In politics, Cuba remains an authoritarian state which regularly imprisons dissidents, poets and gays and blocks an open political discussion about the future of the country. But Bush and Brown are not particularly interested in these aspects when they talk of “democracy”. Their “democracy” is the right of global corporations to invest and exploit in Cuba, drawing the country into the market capitalist economy.

Castro’s retirement will almost certainly usher in political changes held back for so long. The challenge facing the Cuban people is to preserve the considerable social gains made since 1959 while undertaking a democratic, political transformation. Isolation makes this task much harder and Cubans urgently need radical change in the US and Europe to the point where support for Cuba’s self-determination becomes a global priority.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A 21st century Balkan powder keg

Birth should be a happy event. But the declaration of a new state in Kosovo, which according to the United Nations is still nominally part of Serbia, could spin dangerously out of control. Both the majority Kosovan Albanians and the ethnic Serb minority have become parties to 19th-century style Balkans manoeuvres, with Western Europe on one side and Russia and Serb nationalists on the other.

The actual fate of the people of Kosovo is almost certainly the last thing on the minds of the major powers and their allies. Kosovo remains like a prison for its inhabitants, whatever their ethnicity or religion. It has high rates of poverty, 50% unemployment and is plagued by power and water shortages. Animosities are fuelled on both sides by a toxic mix of economic underdevelopment, opportunist and corrupt local politics combined with big power arrogance riding roughshod over ethnicities and small nations.

The declaration of independence in the Kosovan parliament, prompted and encouraged by the United States, Britain and Germany, came despite the absence of an international agreement about the area’s future status and in the knowledge that Serbia regards Kosovo as the historic cradle of its own nationhood.

January’s elections in Serbia undoubtedly helped push Kosovo’s parliament to its declaration. Serbia’s ultra-nationalist, right-wing Radical Party led by Tomislav Nikolic received 29% of the votes, the largest share of any group. Nikolic stated that Serbia should "cut all economic ties, transport, flow of capital, goods and people from Albanian-controlled parts of Kosovo. Their passports will not be valid here, so Kosovo Albanians will not be able to enter Serbia."

Far from “a triumph for intervention”, as the Independent on Sunday blithely claimed, the future is fraught. Russia is opposing Kosovan independence in the UN security council. Other nations like Spain have rejected the declaration by Kosovan prime minister Hashim Thaci, that “from this moment on, Kosovo is proud, independent and free”. Like Russia and China, Spain is concerned about the knock-on effects on would-be new states within its own borders.

NATO military strategists clearly expect trouble. The EU is sending a 2,000-strong “peace and justice” force and Britain will send 1,000 troops in addition to the 16,000 Kosovo-Force (K-For) already occupying the 4,170 square mile area of Kosovo. But the “peace-keeping” function of NATO is in fact a major contributor to the tensions in the area and, like in the past, will only exacerbate them.

Tito’s Democratic Federal Yugoslavia, formed in 1943 out of Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia Herzegovina and Kosovo, began to unravel in the 1990s as Stalinist regimes collapsed in Russia and eastern Europe. Today’s animosities arise directly from the misrule of Stalinist-turned nationalist Slobodan Milošević. Milošević hung on to power for 11 years after becoming leader of the Yugoslav Communist Party in 1989. He whipped up anti-Muslim and anti-Kosovan nationalism as the Yugoslav armed forces carried out brutal “ethnic cleansing” of Muslims. His reactionary politics prompted the civil wars in the region.

In response, separatists declared Kosovo a republic in 1991 and the Kosovo Liberation Army seized control of 40% of Kosovo itself in 1998. Serb forces retaliated, sparking off NATO air strikes in 1999. Serbia and its capital Belgrade were bombed for 98 days, ostensibly to save the Kosovans from persecution. But NATO had a second, hidden agenda: the destruction of the Yugoslav army, the chief military power in the Balkans, plus what remained of the socialist property relations set up under Tito. The political aim was to ensure the triumph of corporate capitalist rule – otherwise known as the “spreading of democracy”. And that remains the NATO/EU agenda in Kosovo today.

Corinna Lotz
AWTW secretary

Monday, February 18, 2008

Darling going down with the ship

“Floundering - SS Corporate Globalisation taking on heavy water – pumps failing.” That was the essence of the emergency message relayed to the world yesterday by chancellor Alistair Darling as he announced public ownership of failed bank Northern Rock following failure to strike a deal with venture capitalists led by Sir Richard Branson. His was the equivalent of announcing "don't panic" to passengers on the Titanic.

So a government that promoted with gusto the virtues of the deregulated market-driven global capitalist economy has now taken on responsibility for the bank’s mortgages, arrears and repossessions and the fate of several thousand Northern Rock employees. Or rather Ron Sandler, the bank’s new executive chairman who at a mere £90,000 a month will be making the decisions on behalf of New Labour.

Darling says that the intention is to return the bank to the private sector when “market conditions improve”. His grey hair may have all fallen out if and when that ever happens. For Northern Rock’s demise is only the most public face of a growing global financial crisis, one which is having the greatest impact in the United States and Britain where “economic growth” has been based on astronomical levels of debt. The government is, of course, taking over Northern Rock just as the bottom falls out of the housing market.

The panic, Sunday morning decision to nationalise Northern Rock rather than let it go into administration means that the British state – or, more precisely, taxpayers – have been saddled with mountainous debts with uncertain prospects of them ever being repaid. Taxpayers are already subsidising Northern Rock in loans and guarantees to other lenders to the tune of about £55 billion. Under the new plans this will jump to a staggering £110bn, a cost of £3,500 per taxpayer and getting on for a quarter of annual government spending.

What the Northern Rock fiasco also shows is that it is far easier for governments to promote and facilitate market-driven globalisation than it is to rescue parts of the system when the wheels come off. The globalised economic system is transnational in character, with an objective existence and presence that is far more powerful (and uncontrollable) than nation states. The evolving financial crisis is essentially beyond the reach of central bankers and governments. The fictitious nature of much of the financial system is exposed on a daily basis now that the real economy is slipping into recession.

Nationalising Northern Rock won’t stop other banks, particularly those heavily committed on the mortgage front, from going the same way. In fact, it might encourage a few more to declare themselves insolvent on the basis that the government will rush to the rescue.

New Labour clearly dithered over Northern Rock as it contemplated an autumn election. Now its actions are seen as damaging to the City of London, which is one the most powerful – and vulnerable - sectors of the global financial system. Prime minister Brown personally set up the regulatory system that so clearly failed in the case of Northern Rock.

Roger Bootle, the managing director of Capital Economics and a former adviser to the Treasury, said: "This is an iconic representation of the collapse of all the ideas over the past few years about the quality of our economic management.” He added: "This is clearly political dynamite.”

We have entered a slash and burn crisis phase of corporate-driven globalisation. That means jobs, homes, pensions and incomes are under threat in every country. At the same time, the political system is clearly incapable of dealing with the crisis. The challenge immediately ahead is to promote political and economic solutions that take us beyond the limitations and dangers of the capitalist market economy.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

Friday, February 15, 2008

Bird flu good for business

One thing is certain when bird flu strikes in developing countries: small poultry keepers will suffer to the advantage of major producers. That is exactly what has happened in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, where local people have had their livelihood destroyed, enabling the corporations to assume ever-increasing dominance.

A report by GRAIN, the campaign group that promotes local bio-diversity, exposes the carnage of poultry in West Bengal following the recent outbreak of avian flu and shows that since 1997, when the H5N1 strain of the disease emerged, the only “solution” remains mass culling.

Yet the real story is that the disease has become endemic precisely because of intensive rearing practices in Asia by food corporations that no one is prepared to challenge. Bird flu only shifts from an isolated incident to a major outbreak once it gets into a large farm, where it rapidly amplifies and spreads through the many channels emanating from it – the sale of eggs, chicks or spent layers, the trade in live birds, the dumping of waste, the movement of workers or even the aerial dispersal of the virus. In fact, outbreak of bird flu in West Bengal began in a big state-run hatchery.

Three weeks after bird flu was officially confirmed in West Bengal on 15 January 2008, the death toll stood at a fantastic 3.7 million birds. The central government has now issued a directive to neighbouring states to cull all poultry in a 5-km-wide belt surrounding West Bengal. There has been resistance to the cull. Some poultry owners refused to participate because of low compensation rates. In neighbouring areas, poultry farmers have taken their protests to the streets and the courts in a bid to halt the slaughter and protect their livelihoods.

GRAIN’s report insists: “The response to bird flu in West Bengal needs to be seen for what it is: a political decision to safeguard the interests of the big poultry producers at the expense of the small-scale sector. In India as a whole, thanks to heavy government support, poultry production has been growing at a rate of nearly 20% per year, with most of the growth occurring through the expansion of large-scale integrated production, largely for export and largely in the midst of areas with thriving backyard and small-scale poultry producers.

“The situation is no different in West Bengal, where a number of big integrated poultry firms have set up in recent years. The largest, Arambagh Hatcheries, part of the B.K. Roy agribusiness group, is now an important player in major export markets, such as Japan and the Middle East, and politically very well connected at home. To keep its trade lines open, a company like Arambagh cannot operate where bird flu is present – hence the drive to stamp the disease out by a mass cull.

“This is a reality of corporate poultry farming that all communities need to be aware of: if a big poultry company sets up in or near to your community, when a disease like bird flu breaks out, whether or not your birds are affected, they will be culled and your traditional poultry practices may even be outlawed. The culls in West Bengal have now been followed by a three-month ban on small-scale poultry production.”

There was an international conference on bird flu in New Delhi at the end of last year, led by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). It was a chance to sound concerned but do nothing. The FAO’s silence on the mass cull in West Bengal speaks volumes about the organisation’s subservience to corporate farming and its refusal to defend local production for local people.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The judges hit back

The Appeal Court’s decision to strike out the convictions of five young Muslim men is part of a continuing struggle between the government and the judiciary over the rule of law. Now into its sixth major piece of anti-terror legislation, New Labour has trampled over the long struggle for rights and has attempted to bypass ancient and contemporary legal rights as well as the independence of the judiciary.

Yesterday’s decision simply reaffirmed the established principle that intent has to be proved in order for an action to be considered potentially criminal. It also held that reading material downloaded from the internet is not itself an offence, upholding a basic freedom to obtain information. The government is not amused by the judges’ action and is considering an appeal against the ruling.

What the Terror Act 2000 did was to try and circumvent the question of intent through vague, catch-all wording. Section 57 – under which the five were convicted - says a person commits an offence if “he possesses an article in circumstances which give rise to reasonable suspicion that his possession is for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation, of an act or terrorism”. Section 58’s wording is even vaguer, and makes it makes it illegal to just possess material.

Striking down the convictions, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips said: "[Section 57] must be interpreted in a way that requires a direct connection between the object possessed and the act of terrorism." Directions given to the jury by the trial judge did not tell jurors "that they had to be satisfied that each appellant intended to use the relevant articles to incite his fellow planners to fight in Afghanistan". The court of appeal ruled that the "basis upon which the appellants were convicted is shown to have been unsound”. The court said the prosecution's case was so weak, it should not even have gone before a jury.

Imran Khan, the solicitor for one of the freed men, said young Muslims seeking to explore the world of their religion should no longer be victimised: "My client is over the moon. He says it is surreal and cannot see why he has spent the last two years in prison for looking at material which he had no intention of using for terrorism. Young people should not be frightened of exploring their world." His sentiments are admirable but lest any young Muslim (or anyone else for that matter) now thinks that it is safe to start surfing the net again without the state taking an interest, they should think again.

The state has no plans to give up on criminalising the Muslim community in the wake of the Appeal Court’s ruling. On the contrary, the latest so-called counter-terror bill contains measures that ride roughshod over the rule of law, especially the ancient right to be charged and brought before a court or set free. The proposal in the bill for up to 42 days pre-charge detention is tantamount to imprisonment without trial. It is also long enough to inflict severe psychological and physical damage on people picked up under this Gestapo-style plan.

The new measures also include expanding the use of DNA sampling in terrorism investigations and allowing the questioning of suspects after they have been charged. Under the proposals, judges may impose longer sentences where terrorism connections are considered an "aggravating factor". Also, persons convicted of terrorism-related offences will in future be put on a special register similar to that for sex offenders, allowing the government to monitor and prevent them from travelling abroad. The bill is also aimed at cutting out juries in inquests where matters of “national security” are said to be involved. The struggle to defend human rights under the rule of law is far from over.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Non-doms have their way

The government’s ignominious retreat over modest proposals for taxing super-rich, non-domiciled foreigners – the so-called “non-doms” – is a further sign of New Labour’s confusion and decline as the party favoured by big business. After a decade of helping to turn London in particular into the playground of the rich, the government is losing its touch to such an extent that there are clear indications that business is turning back to the Tories.

This is bad news for New Labour, which was created by Blair and Brown as the party that would promote the alleged virtues of the market economy and make Britain the most attractive place to operate and live in. Now London in particular is flooded with Russian oligarchs – people who acquired for a song state property – and billionaires from around the globe. The super-rich are even courted by people like Mayor Ken Livingstone, who views non-doms as an inevitable by-product of globalised finance capitalism.

New Labour’s current mess follows a clumsy attempt to trump the Tories who, ironically, have spoken out against the excesses of the non-doms as part of their populist politics. On 1 October, George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, unveiled plans to introduce a flat annual levy of £25,000 on all non-doms, who number about 150,000. Not long after, chancellor Alistair Darling, the chancellor, announced draft legislation that outlined how non-doms would need to provide details of their foreign earnings and pay tax on income and capital gains from offshore trusts.

This led to an outcry in the City and was even attacked by a government minister. Lord Jones – formerly head of the employers’ confederation – criticised the proposal only last week. He remains a minister. Yesterday, the Treasury announced a U-turn on the legislation. Its humiliating retreat comes in the wake of a climb-down over new tax rules on capital gains tax (CGT) and the crisis triggered by the Northern Rock debacle.

The Brown government is now in a desperate race to recover its standing with business – and it may be too late. David Frost, the director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce, claims that government "just lost the plot" over the autumn. Business, he said had bought strongly into Gordon Brown's pro-enterprise agenda when he was chancellor. "He couldn't get up without talking about enterprise and business, comparing ourselves to the States.
"When the announcement came on CGT, my phone literally started buzzing within half an hour of him sitting down and it didn't stop for three weeks. I don't think they understood how much damage that had done. Businesses started to ask, what is going on? Does the government understand business under the new regime? Non-doms is equally an issue. People are asking, are we giving the message that the UK is a place where they can do business?" A BCC survey of its members last month found that 41% had more trust in David Cameron and shadow chancellor Osborne, against 19% for Brown and Darling.

So while what Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrats' treasury spokesman, describes as “outrageous special pleading from the City” with “wildly exaggerated accounts of the damage that would be done by taxing non-domiciled residents” is successful, the vast majority of the population face tougher choices. Food, transport and fuel bills are rising at their fastest rate for almost 20 decades while incomes are static or falling in real times. More than third of an average wage goes in deductions in return for worsening public services, leaving the non-doms laughing all the way to the bank.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Crucifying the Archbishop

A World to Win’s editors are not for any religion or the supremacy of one “belief system” over another. But we can see how those who want to find a peg on which to hang all their prejudices have chosen the Archbishop of Canterbury’s thoughts about the rights of minorities. Rowan Williams has become a punch bag for reactionaries and fake liberals of all kinds following his considered remarks about sharia law and minority communities.

Few people challenge the alienating power of the state which, as a result, assumes some quasi-religious divine right to rule. So it’s a paradox that the most senior figure in the established church has done so. Williams rightly attacked the notion – which has been advanced by New Labour with its “citizenship” propaganda for example - “that to be a citizen is essentially and simply to be under the rule of the uniform law of a sovereign state”. His insistence that there is a “distinction between the rights of citizens overall and the duties of individuals under their religion” and that peoples right to practice what their consciences dictate is equally important.

No wonder that the Brown government immediately joined the lynch mob after the tabloid media spiced up Williams’ address to lawyers last week, declaring that there could only be “British law that reflected British values” and that the archbishop was mistaken. The fact that multiculturalism in Britain has not been entirely successful doesn’t mean that the idea that different peoples can live in harmony should be abandoned. Nor should it mean that all minorities – religious or secular - should be compelled to integrate or face social exclusion. This has been the thrust of Williams’ arguments and the reaction it aroused shows all too clear the intolerance that New Labour and people like Trevor Phillips has helped foster with their attacks on multiculturalism.

Johann Hari and Yasmin Alibhai Brown, both Independent columnists, have shown the true colours behind their supposed free-thinking, liberal stances. They both suggest that Williams has endorsed the abuse of women that occurs in countries under the justification that it is sharia law, which is something that he has not done. Hari, like the Bishop of Rochester, attacked the notion that different peoples, religions and cultures could live together in the UK without being intolerant of each other’s beliefs. Strutting about as a liberal, Hari – who infamously backed the invasion of Iraq – somehow denies that there are minorities like Muslims who have been singled out for punishment and ostracised, taking the place of persecuted Jews, Catholics, Afro-Caribbeans and other ethnic and religious minorities.

Williams did not for one moment suggest that sharia or any other religious-based law should overrule British law. He merely tried to advocate greater understanding of history and customs of another cultures and faiths and to raise whether communities could have some forms of self-regulation in the sphere of civil law. All of the archbishop’s detractors chose to ignore his main message – which is an attack on one-dimensional dogmas of all kinds. In particular, he warned against allowing governments “a monopoly in terms of defining public and political identity”.

A strong, confident state that enjoys the general support of the people would, of course, not over-react the way it has over the Williams’ speech. But the institutions of the state do not enjoy such a privileged position. The Church of England, which is an integral part of the British establishment, is itself in some crisis. Reactionaries within the church who joined in the attack on Williams would prefer oblivion to any sort of radical change. They are part of the growing authoritarianism in Britain that is intended to intimidate those who favour open debate.

Corinna Lotz
AWTW secretary

Monday, February 11, 2008

Staring at 'economic calamity'

The world’s financial ministers are all in a dither, and it is not surprising. At the weekend meeting of the G7 – the world’s richest economies – ministers took a few steps towards acknowledging the scale of the economic unravelling that is both cause and consequence of the global credit crunch. Then most did a sharp about turn, rejecting America’s call for a global reflationary package and claiming things could be contained.

New Labour’s chancellor, Alistair Darling admitted: “It is undoubtedly the case following the problems that arose in the US housing market last summer that the world is facing a turbulent time.” Hank Paulson, the US treasury secretary acknowledged that “the current financial turmoil is serious, and persisting”. They were responding to an understated report from the Financial Stability Forum (FSF), a study group drawn from the world’s central bankers and financial regulators which warned: "It is likely that we face a prolonged adjustment, which could be difficult".

Financial Times columnist Wolfgang Munchau is even more downbeat – at least for the US and the UK - in what tries to be an assessment of the risk of global deflation, a repeat of the Great Depression – “the ultimate economic calamity” as he puts it. Munchau says there is one scenario that could produce a 1930s-style deflationary depression in the US: a large-scale financial meltdown, adding; “By that I mean a situation in which the financial sector would cease to fulfil one of its basic functions: to provide liquidity to the real economy.”

But those who’ve been paying attention know that the problem with Northern Rock was exactly that. The wholesale credit markets seized up – liquidity disappeared – following revelations about the repackaging and reselling of unrepayable debts. So Munchau’s assessment becomes particularly chilling when you read what another G7 Minister had to say. According to Peer Steinbrück, German finance minister, the G7 now feared that write-offs of losses on securities linked to US sub prime mortgages could reach $400 billion. This is sharply higher than the $120 billion credit losses that Wall Street banks and other institutions have revealed in recent weeks – and also far bigger than the US Federal Reserve’s estimates.

Which all helps us to put Munchau’s assessment of the UK’s prospects in perspective. He says “The UK is perhaps more vulnerable, because of the relatively large size of the financial sector in the economy, an over-reliance on a property market that is about to deflate, and chronically low productivity growth in non-financial sectors. There is now clearly the possibility of a severe and prolonged recession, followed by a long period of low growth.”

The FSF puts forward a raft of regulatory measures aimed at strengthening the resilience of key elements of the financial system. These however, are targeted at some of the many consequences rather than the underlying cause: 30 years of credit-induced transformation of the world economy has failed to reverse the underlying trend of a continuous decline in the rate of global growth per head.

None of this is really in line with Darling’s insistence that the UK has “good reasons to be confident” about its ability to withstand a slowdown in the global economy, is it? Just before the G7 met, figures released in Britain showed that home repossessions soared by 21% in 2007 as the credit crisis began to bite into people’s ability to repay their mortgages, let alone second mortgages used to buy expensive consumer goods. Meanwhile, business confidence in Britain is at an all-time low, according to a survey by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England Wales. The banking, finance and insurance sector showed the lowest confidence. But there will be no recession, the institute says. So that’s alright then.

Gerry Gold, economics editor

Friday, February 08, 2008

A week of intolerance

Another bad week for civil liberties and human rights in Britain, courtesy of the New Labour government and their supporters around the country. A mixture of anti-working class, anti-Islamic and plain anti-democratic measures all add to the authoritarian and intolerant atmosphere that is the hallmark of this grim government.

Early in the week, new housing minister Caroline Flint launched a reactionary attack on unemployed council tenants. She threatened them with eviction unless they could prove they had made serious attempts to take up jobs. Her plan would create thousands of homeless families in areas where there are few or, at best a handful of low-paid, jobs. Flint’s is a gratuitous attempt to stigmatise workers living on estates where, as a result of government policies, rents are beyond most people’s incomes and so they forced to depend on housing benefit.

One attempt to woo Daily Mail readers away from the Tories was followed later in the week by arbitrary decisions that were intended to anger and provoke the Muslim community. After being goaded by Tory leader David Cameron, Gordon Brown's government refused a visa that would have allowed elderly Islamic preacher, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, to come to the Britain for medical treatment. Al-Qaradawi has been coming to Britain for over 30 years and is now being kept out on the spurious grounds that he defends terrorism in his speeches. His views on a number of issues like women’s and gay rights are indeed pretty grim but the fact remains that they are just that - views and opinions. The right to hold and espouse a point of view clearly only applies if you agree with the government. It’s a novel take on freedom of speech.

Then home secretary Jacqui Smith – who is promoting detention without trial for 42 days in the latest anti-terror bill – signed an order which would send preacher Abu Hamza to the US to face a possible life sentence on terrorism charges that his lawyer says are the result of information provided under torture. Hamza is serving a seven-year sentence in Britain for inciting hatred, but the government wants him sent to the US before his jail term is completed. His lawyer Muddassar Arani said that one person who implicated the preacher had been tortured in a US-run secret prison, and another alleged witness had been tortured in Guantánamo Bay. Before we continue this sorry tale, we shouldn’t forget to mention the government’s decision this week to allow “evidence” gathered through phone tapping to be used in court, a decision that the organisation Liberty, amazingly, supports.

So we come to Salford, the Labour-controlled council near Manchester. Its contibution to the week came with news that children who want to stage a protest march against a closure threat to their school will have to pay £2,500 to cover the cost of "traffic management”. The council’s decision has so angered both staff and pupils at St George's High School that they are considering reporting Salford to the European Court of Human Rights. They say they are being denied a fundamental right to protest. Lizzie Finch, 16, one of four Year 11 girls who are coordinating the protest, said: "It's appalling and outrageous. How dare they try to take away our rights? There is no way we are going to pay this charge because it's completely out of order." Head teacher Philip Harte who supports the protest added: "The level of their hypocricy is also quite breathtaking. As a school we have instilled the principles of fairness and democracy, of doing things through the proper channels, and yet this is the way the children's own council behaves. It's a total disgrace and I'm absolutely convinced it is an act of vindictiveness towards the school." Welcome to Brown's Britain.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Democrats tried and trusted

Lest anyone gets too excited about the prospect of the first woman or the first black person entering the White House as president, it is well to remember what the Democratic Party is all about. Probably the oldest capitalist party in the world, tracing its roots back to the late 18th century, the Democrats represent absolutely no threat to the corporate and financial power centres that dominate politics in the United States.

The last time the Democrats were in power under Bill Clinton, they managed to grind the aspirations of their supporters down so far that George W. Bush was able to steal a tainted victory in 2000 and the rest, as they say, is history. Should either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama win in November, don’t hold your breath. Obama is vacuousness itself while Clinton is all things to all people.

The Democratic Party is one of America’s two parties of big business, taking turns with the Republicans to command the state. This is best illustrated by its record when last in office and voting records in Congress since Bush has been in power. During the Clintons’ presidency (she played a crucial policy-making role), the administration:

- abandoned the promise of universal health care in the face of hostility from the big insurance companies
- signed the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico which saw a fall in wages of US workers and the export of jobs to non-union, cheap-labour border areas
- created the World Trade Organisation in 1994 as the policeman of the corporate-driven globalisation project
- bombed Serbia in 1999 and tightened the screws on Iraq through sanctions, creating the precedent for Bush’s subsequent invasion of Iraq
- presided over the jailing of more black people than under the previous Reagan administration
- allowed inequality in America to grow to record levels.

Out of office, the Democrats have performed no better. The vast majority in Congress backed the authoritarian measures such as the Patriot Act introduced by Bush following the September 11 attacks. They authorised the invasion of Afghanistan, inflicting more misery on that country and have backed the so-called “war on terror” which has demonised Muslims all over the world.

All but a handful – of which Obama is one in contrast to his opponent – endorsed the invasion of Iraq. Even after winning majorities in both houses of Congress in 2006, the Democrats have declined to force Bush’s hand in Iraq by calling for an end to the occupation. This is consistent with the party that brought the world the horrific war in Vietnam, the attempted overthrow of Castro in Cuba and other military adventures.

There is clearly a thirst for change in America, which is reflected in the primary campaigns in which record numbers have taken part. Support for Obama in the primaries is strongest amongst the most impoverished sections in society as well as new generations of voters. Obama has galvanised the grass roots of the party and raised his funds mainly from individuals while Clinton represents the establishment and is dependent on big-money funders. Ultimately, however, Obama’s role is to send the desire for change down safe channels while Clinton wants to contain change altogether. With the economic recession beginning to bite, if either wins the election, they will face an increasingly angry American electorate that demands radical change in deeds rather than words. And that will be way beyond what the Democratic Party can offer.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The nightmare Olympics

The Beijing government is struggling to hide the truth about how ordinary people in China are paying for this summer’s Olympic Games by muzzling the Internet and arresting outspoken journalists and critics. At the same time, ordinary people in villages throughout the country, even around Beijing itself, are paying heavily for the staging of the Games.

Cyber-dissident, Lu Gengsong has just been sentenced to four years in jail for “inciting subversion of state power”. Lu is a 51-year-old freelance writer who published a book called “Corrupted Officials in China” in 2000. He also revealed a large number of illegal eviction cases. The arrest of another leading critic of the government, Hu Jia, was made public at the weekend.

Hu’s crime was that he had spoken via video-link to a European Parliament committee, criticising his country’s human rights record in relation to the Olympics. A US-based group working for political prisoners, Duihua, said: “From the perspective of the authorities, to take this high-profile rights activist out of action in the final months before the Olympics may have been too good to pass up.”

But as the government tries to silence oppositionists, an army of bloggers (47 million and growing) are playing cat and mouse with half a dozen censorship bodies and 30,000 staff whose job it is to monitor the Internet. Chinese hosting companies themselves block access or police chat rooms, while Google, Microsoft and Yahoo voluntarily censor material. Yahoo has even handed over information to the Chinese authorities, which led to the jailing of two journalists.

Hundreds of miles south east of Beijing, a huge canal is being constructed to divert billions of gallons of water to provide for athletes and visitors to the Games. But farmers have been forced to abandon their rice crops as large areas have become arid as water supplies dry up. Since Beijing has only an eighth of China’s average water reserves per resident, the £30 billion plan is to divert water from the Yangtze River in central China. Dai Qing, an environmentalist critic of the Three Gorges Dam project, has noted: “While they have created previously unknown wealth, it is a wealth made possible by the avaricious consumption of natural resources”.

Meanwhile, as an elite with connections to the Chinese bureaucracy grow fabulously rich through speculation and land grabs, the mass of the population is excluded. The experiences of 800 villagers in Heiquiocum, in the Beijing suburbs, are typical. They have to make do on 200 yuan (about $25) a month. Their homes have been enclosed by a circular test track for freight trains, which make a thunderous noise every few minutes and deprive residents of sleep. According to one South Korean newspaper, “children with grimy black faces, reminiscent of the wasted waifs roaming from North Korea, are common sights in Heiqiaocun’s market. Their faces are filthy because they don’t have enough water to bathe.”

It’s not only political freedom and water, which are in short supply, however. Fresh air is just as hard to come by in the Olympic city, which expects more than three million visitors. Pollution levels are so high that athletes like runner Haile Gebrselassie has said he may skip the marathon because of pollution fears. Levels in Beijing are far higher than the last four Olympic venues. The Beijing Olympics ought to be renamed the Nightmare Games for the price the Chinese people are paying to stage the event.

Corinna Lotz
Secretary, A World to Win

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The lives of others

The bugging of MP Sadiq Khan’s conversations with a constituent in prison shows once more that Britain is a fully-fledged surveillance state and also that the New Labour government has a created a monster it has no effective control over. The secret state within the state has its own agenda about how to protect “national interests” – and the government will always be at least one step behind.

For Justice secretary Jack Straw was clearly at a loss yesterday to explain how a member of the government was secretly recorded and why he knew nothing about it, even though his civil servants did. The truth is that New Labour has started where the notorious Stasi, East Germany’s secret police, left off when the Berlin Wall came down, which was the subject of the brilliant film “The Lives of Others”. One of the government’s first priorities after its 1997 election victory was to prepare legislation giving a range of agencies widespread surveillance powers. The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 included arbitrary powers to intercept and seize emails from internet companies’ servers.

Since then, various state agencies – more than 600 in all - have literally been on the rampage. Councils, police and intelligence services are tapping and intercepting the phone calls, emails and letters of hundreds of thousands of people every year, an official report by Sir Paul Kennedy, the Interception of Communications Commissioner (!) has revealed. The report shows that in the last nine months of 2006, there were 253,557 applications to intercept private communications under surveillance laws. Most were approved. Those being bugged included people suspected of illegal fly-tipping. In some cases, the wrong phones were tapped simply because of administrative errors.

With all these powers, it is no surprise that the police were prepared to bug an MP’s conversations with a constituent who is fighting deportation on spurious terror charges. In the shadowy world of the secret state, any compromising information gleaned in this way is always useful as a bargaining chip and to add pressure on ministers when the police ask for more powers. Khan’s constituent, Babar Ahmad, has in fact not been charged with any offence in Britain. Instead, he has languished in jail since 2004, fighting deportation to the US. The US authorities are not required to produce any evidence to back up their demand, thanks to a New Labour deal struck with the White House.

In the Khan incident, Scotland Yard is said to have applied “significant” pressure on ex-policeman Mark Kearney, who was working at the prison in Milton Keyes when the MP visited Ahmad, to carry out the bugging operation. Kearney said that while he did record the visit he “never felt it was justified in these circumstances". He now says he fears for his safety following the leaking of the Khan incident. So someone high up in Scotland Yard decided that MP Khan was fair game, especially as he had apparently got up their noses when representing other people charged with terror offences and when he was chair of the human rights group Liberty. Sir Ian Blair, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, won’t have to worry. He is, of course, New Labour’s favourite policeman, defended to the hilt in the wake of the reports criticising his force over the Menezes killing in 2005.

The Khan affair shows that the state within the state is becoming more and more arrogant, determining its own agenda and priorities. Having handed the state incredible, wide-ranging powers, the government itself naturally joins the list of targets. As the economic situation worsens and social unrest looms, state agencies will be redoubling their activities “in defence of the realm”, concocting provocations along the way. We have been warned.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

Monday, February 04, 2008

When corporations rule the world

Google’s owners are not the only ones troubled by Microsoft’s unsolicited bid for rival search engine Yahoo. No less than the right-leaning, pro-business Daily Telegraph believes that Microsoft’s move is yet further evidence that corporations have become more powerful than governments. The Telegraph has discovered what many have known for a long time – that corporate-driven globalisation is at odds with what are considered to be the norms of a parliamentary democratic state.

Microsoft is a case in point. The corporation has a virtual monopoly on the software used to run personal computers. And it wields tremendous influence in government circles, including in Britain. Microsoft is tied into the New Labour government’s educational policies and practice, for example, and chief executive Bill Gates is close to prime minister Brown, as he was to his predecessor. Bids by the US and the European Union to weaken Microsoft’s monopoly have come to nothing.

For the Telegraph, this is all too much. Its editorial (2 February) concluded that Microsoft’s decision to offer to buy Yahoo shares at 62% over their closing price was essentially aimed at Google. Yahoo has lost out to its search engine rival and the company’s revenues are in decline. The paper is concerned that If Microsoft and Yahoo combine successfully then the future of internet technology will be dominated by a battle between Microsoft-Yahoo and Google, adding sardonically: “So much for the diversity of the free market.”

The conservative newspaper has clearly had its faith in capitalism shaken by the current financial crisis, because the editorial goes on to say: “A Microsoft-Google duopoly, meanwhile, is more subtly political: it brings us close to a world in which corporations wield more power than governments. In both cases, massive issues of sovereignty and commercial freedom are being decided not in parliaments but in boardroom negotiations. The West's elected politicians have some serious catching up to do.”

This is where the Telegraph has missed the point, however. The “West’s politicians” are deeply embroiled in the whole process of corporate-driven globalisation. They have willingly bowed to the power of the corporations in order to attract foreign investment. Politicians have given vast powers to the World Trade Organisation and the EU to promote deregulation and open markets. New Labour has brought business figures like banker David Freud into government. Freud has just proposed that millions of people should be denied invalidity benefit and compelled to work. What a surprise.

The transition from the welfare state to the market state we now live under, actually began under the Tories in the early 1980s and has been completed by New Labour. The Telegraph may be alarmed now, but it was complicit during this lengthy process. The paper embraced the alleged benefits of the free market economy when it seemed to be in the ascendancy. Now it is concerned that growing inequalities and instability will lead the public to question the legitimacy of the capitalist system as a whole.

The Telegraph is right to be worried. The parliamentary state is clearly incompatible with corporate-led globalisation and that is why it becomes more authoritarian with each passing day. In just one week, the state under New Labour has announced the reintroduction of arbitrary stop and search powers for the police and effective detention without trial for terror suspects. Even its own MPs are not safe from police bugging operations. Taking on corporate power will mean building a new, democratic state that supports the transfer of shareholder ownership into common, co-ownership by workers and producers. Now that’s a project the Telegraph won’t be too keen about!

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

Friday, February 01, 2008

Poverty not tribalism behind Kenya's crisis

Political leaders in the West expressing pious shock at the terrible events in Kenya are achieving new pinnacles of hypocrisy since for decades they have ignored the country’s growing crisis. They continued to support Mwai Kibaki’s rapacious and corrupt regime in return for Kenya’s full participation in the global market economy. The subjection of this formerly peaceful country of 40 ethnic groups to the requirements of capitalist globalisation, rather than “tribalism”, has driven on the current ethnic violence and social breakdown.

Kenyans swept Kibaki to power in 2002, their first opportunity to get rid of the kleptocracy of Daniel Arap Moi who had blatantly stolen billions of dollars in aid and investment. Kibaki promised an end to corruption but only three years later John Githongo, the man appointed by Kibaki to clean up corruption, fled to Britain. He brought with him papers and taped conversations with ministers, exposing deals that showed Kibaki and his cronies were skimming millions through fake contracts with non-existent companies.

The New Labour government knew exactly what was happening in Kenya but chose to ignore Githongo’s evidence – as did the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the US government. Kibaki was creating a comfortable home for global finance in Nairobi, a centre for tea and coffee trade and a transport hub for East Africa.

And so the UK increased aid to Kenya, from £30m in 2003-04 to £50m in 2005-06. But neither aid nor trade have prevented the massive growth of poverty and unemployment. In the past two years Kenya has achieved annual growth of 6%, whilst at the same time the gap between the wealthy elite and the poor has grown dramatically.

Kenya’s population has risen from 9 to 30 million since independence from Britain in 1963 and the average age in Kenya is 18. Unemployment amongst young people in both rural and urban areas has reached unbearable levels. There are thousands of young men who have literally nothing to lose. “It did take many, many people by surprise that things could get that bad that quickly,” admits Razia Khan, Africa analyst at Standard Chartered bank in London – demonstrating the extent to which capitalist globalisation is oblivious to its own impact.

About 80% of Kenyan land is arid and semi-arid, but huge swathes of productive land have been turned over to cash crops for the global supermarket chains, leaving rural people in landless poverty. The growth in tourism, bringing in £500 million a year, has brought little change but rather simply put more pressure on scarce resources. Terrible flooding in 2002 and 2006 destroyed many peoples’ livelihoods and they have never recovered.

The politicians from both sides whipped up tribal divisions during the election in order to win votes and now act surprised at the horror they unleashed. There is an alternative – and that is for Kenyans to unite in opposition to corporate-driven globalisation, and with fellow East Africans across tribes and borders, to regenerate the ideals of Pan-Africanism. It is only the unity of the African masses in opposition to globalisation and the corporations’ proxy regimes that can end poverty and create the conditions for dignity as well as economic and political self-determination.

Penny Cole