Friday, February 27, 2009

How to 'rescue' the banks from the owners

On the day the Royal Bank of Scotland reported the biggest annual loss in UK corporate history - a mind-boggling £24 billion - and news emerged of former chief executive Sir Fred Goodwin’s £700,000 a year pension, New Labour announced its third rescue package for the stricken bank.

This was timed to prevent a further decline in the bank’s share price which had fallen by 90% in the last year. The plan worked. Shares rose. How so?

The deal stops short of total state ownership, limiting the state’s interest in the bank to a potential 95%. But the government’s, and hence the taxpayers’ non-voting share-holding leaves control and any future profits to the current shareholders. The details of the deal are complex, involving a tax-funded insurance scheme under which the state guarantees to buy up the bank’s toxic assets.

Since October, the major capitalist countries have pledged not to allow systemically important banks to fail. What is being protected by this conspiracy of the world’s most important governments is of course the system of social relationships in which private capital owned by shareholders underpins billions of employment contracts. The contract guarantees that part of the value generated by the labour of people who work for a living ends up as profit in the shareholders’ bank accounts.

But the economy is in freefall, and the profit system is broken. Japan’s exports have fallen by 50% in a few months and its industrial output plunged 10% in January - the biggest monthly drop since records began more than half a century ago, the government said today. Key industries like car manufacturing which have been the engine of growth are, like the banks, bankrupt, too important to be allowed to fail, too big to save.

This contradiction is real. It can be resolved in one of two ways. The competitive logic of capital insists on the destruction of overcapacity and the loss to humanity of much that it has produced. The 90% drop in RBS’s share value provides a measure of the shrinkage the system needs before growth can restart.

Another way is possible. A different kind of government and political system would greatly simplify the rescue by taking the banks – all of them – into full social ownership. Has anyone trodden this path in history? Well, yes actually. Just a few weeks before the Russian Revolution of 1917, Lenin wrote how capitalism had made a new society possible by creating an “accounting apparatus in the shape of the banks”, which revolutionaries “take ready-made from capitalism; our task here is merely to lop off what capitalistically mutilates”.

He added: “ We can ‘lay hold of’ and ‘set in motion’ this ‘state apparatus’ ...because the actual work of book-keeping, control, registering, accounting and counting is performed by employees, the majority of whom themselves lead a proletarian or semi-proletarian existence.” [emphasis in original]. A few weeks later the transfer of Russia’s private banks into public ownership was achieved.

RBS has vast resources and assets worth a nominal £2.2 trillion. It has been at the heart of the world’s financial system since the earliest days of capitalist production. It grew to become one of the world's top 10 financial services groups which operate in every country around the world.

The services they provide over global networks enable people and organisations throughout the world to account for the products they produce and exchange.
In common with most of the big banks, RBS provides insurance services. It is the second largest general insurer in the UK, and the biggest provider of motor insurance. It develops and maintains the infrastructure and technology that support its branches and cash machines, internet and telephone banking services, mortgage processing and money transmission.

The work of the bank is carried out by the more than 140,000 people it employs worldwide. Under their control the bank can continue without the need for shareholders. From their own ranks they could elect a new system of democratically-accountable management. Who needs the owners or executives like Goodwin? No one! It's time to seize what belongs to us in any case.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Only so much oil in the ground

Native Americans from the Cree clan will today announce a legal challenge to the Alberta government’s issuing of permits allowing oil corporations to start extracting oil from tar sands in the Beaver Lake area. This highly profitable activity will pollute hunting and fishing lands and destroy protected areas and species. The Co-operative Bank has offered the Cree £50,000 towards their legal costs.

The rush for cheap oil is speeding up everywhere, though the oil price has plummeted. The International Energy Agency explains why: even assuming no growth in demand, an extra 45 million barrels per day of oil production will be needed by 2030 in order to compensate for falling output in ageing oilfields.

But the low price means there is no incentive to explore for underground or undersea deposits. Tar sand doesn’t need to be searched for – you just drag out the oil, devastate the land, and pocket the profits.

The anarchy and injustice of the market is nowhere more clear than in energy. Investment in alternative energy is now at a standstill as the corporations abandon any efforts to reduce carbon emissions. The price of carbon credits has fallen so low, that it is cheaper to go on polluting than to invest in cleaner technologies.

Governments are reducing subsidies for alternative energy and the credit crunch means there loans to alternative energy companies are few and far between. The big energy giants are pulling out of alternatives with the exception of bio-fuels from grain, which are heavily subsidised in the US.

BP is cutting solar cell production in Australia, abandoning all its wind power projects except in the US and scrapping plans for “experimental” carbon capture power stations. It is doing it because its net profit for the last quarter was only $2.605 billion compared to a forecast $2.98 billion. BP is one of the companies involved in the Alberta Basin project.

The oil corporation is also cutting investment in an experimental project to produce oil from jatropha, a hardy plant that can be grown on land unsuitable for food crops. This is just the kind of production that could offer a living to farmers in poor countries in the future – although the model used of growing the plant in India and Africa and then importing it to Mansfield, seems completely crazy.

BP’s partner in the business, D1, has already shut plants in Merseyside and Middlesbrough. They produced bio-diesel from rape seed oil but could not compete with subsidised US bio-diesel. So fuel is being used, and emissions created, to transport supposedly green diesel across the Atlantic ocean.

Now the Mansfield plant faces contraction, and the farmers in India and Africa commissioned to grow 500,000 acres of jatropha will be hit too. And yet, world governments continue to look to this market to deliver consistency of supply AND reduce carbon emissions at the same time. It is the double bind of profit-driven globalisation, which they can see no escape from.

This flawed system is incapable of delivering a just, affordable and sustainable energy supply. We must urgently develop the alternative. Join A World to Win in planning how that can be achieved – start by reading our Action Plan for the Eco-Crisis. And I find it concentrates the mind wonderfully if you have playing in the background the amazing Tower of Power’s prescient 1973 hit "Only so Much Oil in the Ground".

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Stripping away our rights

If the state strips away basic freedoms and civil liberties, what do you have left? And is this then a state worth preserving? These questions are worth asking on a day that two further assaults on our rights make it into the public realm (don’t even ask about the stuff we know nothing about) that are designed to intimidate ordinary citizens.

First comes the news that the Home Office wants the police to deploy remote-controlled drones used in war zones. The stated aim would be to gather evidence and track criminals without putting officers at risk. The unstated objective is to increase surveillance over society at large.

Then there is the statement by the Cabinet Office's former security and intelligence co-ordinator, that in future the security services will need access to a wide range of personal data in the “fight against terrorism”. Of course, this is already happening to a great extent behind closed doors. So why is Sir David Omand bothering to use the Institute for Public Policy think tank to publish a new document?

One conclusion is that we are being “softened up” so that the government can claim it has the popular support when a more overt system is introduced. As Omand says: "Being able to demonstrate proper legal authorisation and appropriate oversight of the use of such intrusive intelligence activity may become a major future issue for the intelligence community, if the public at large is to be convinced of the desirability of such intelligence capability."

According to Omand, that is preferable to “tinkering with the rule of law, or derogating from fundamental human rights”. So, on his logic, as long as there is statutory backing, it does not constitute an attack on rights. What rubbish! When New Labour passed laws that authorised the indefinite detention without trial of foreign terror suspects, did that constitute the “rule of law”? Well, no actually. The courts declared that the law was itself unlawful because it contravened fundamental human rights.

None of this has stopped New Labour from orchestrating the destruction of an array of rights, which has resulted in the emergence of an authoritarian state. An audit carried out for this weekend’s Convention on Modern Liberty is a stark reminder of the range of rights that have disappeared or been subverted.

To demand, however, that the present state, instead of taking our rights away, should somehow be made their guarantor, is to misunderstand completely the nature of the beast. Basic rights and liberties have never been the subject of protection orders. All of them owe their very existence not to the state but to the struggles of countless generations for various rights. The capitalist state emerged in late 18th century Britain in screaming opposition to any rights at all. Anything we’ve achieved since has been on our own account and through our own efforts.

If the position has deteriorated it is because in some respects we are back where we started in terms of the fight for rights. In its infancy, the state promoted nascent capitalism and free markets at the expense of basic rights and in doing so actually became a ruthless capitalist state. Today, globalised capitalism has drawn the state into its orbit to the extent that massive transfers of public wealth are taking place in order to try and rescue banks and corporations. Where does that leave the right to vote? We may have it still but it is hardly effective.

The logic of all this is that the capitalist state itself has passed its use-by date. It has run its course, along with the capitalist system it co-ordinates and presides over. Renewing the historic struggle for rights must of necessity take us into a new democratic era, where the present state is confined to a museum and a new one based on the rule of law, human rights and freedom from exploitation is put together by the people themselves.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Behind the Royal Mail sell-off

As postal workers gather outside Parliament today to lobby the government over plans for a partial sell-off of the Royal Mail, as a prelude to mass redundancies, any lingering doubts they might have had about where New Labour’s priorities lie should be dispelled by reports of yet another bail-out of the banks.

The extra £500 billion in liabilities taxpayers are said to be facing to prop up RBS and Lloyds will take the state’s commitment to the insolvent banking system to a staggering £1.3 trillion (£1,300,000 million if it makes the total any easier to understand). That’s equivalent to the value of the British economy’s output for a whole year. 

Meanwhile, on the back of a paltry – by comparison - £5,900 million deficit in the Royal Mail’s pension fund, New Labour is planning to sell off part of the company to a transnational corporation. New investment will be undertaken at the price of “modernisation” of this nominally public service, resulting in large-scale job losses and price increases. The break-up of post office services is an indication of what is to come. 

That, at least, is the plan and it is entirely consistent with New Labour’s role in life. This is to use the capitalist state to create opportunities for global companies operating in Britain to extract maximum profits from working people. With the capitalist economy in freefall, new opportunities for profit-taking are most welcome by business and part-privatisation does just that. 

It is no use the Communication Workers Union leaders pussy-footing around in a futile bid to try and isolate business secretary Lord Mandelson, who is introducing the legislation in the House of Lords on Thursday. Prime minister Brown and the rest of the cabinet are equally behind the sell-off because they are unreservedly committed not just to the preservation of but also to the enhancement of corporate and financial interests. 

Yet the transfer of wealth from taxpayers to banks will not avert the slide into slump that is now taking place at a rapid pace on both sides of the Atlantic. In America, Citibank and AIG insurance are once more on the point of collapse. Wall Street has fallen back to 1997 levels. A new shock to the system is being prepared that will produce social outrage and upheaval in country after country. The massive anti-government demonstration in Dublin at the weekend – equivalent to a march in London of 1.5 million – is a sign of what’s coming up the line. 

That’s why Brown’s bovver boys – aka the Metropolitan Police – are letting it be known that they are preparing for a "summer of rage". Superintendent David Hartshorn, who heads the Metropolitan police's public order branch, said. "Obviously the downturn in the economy, unemployment, repossessions, changes that [public mood]. Suddenly there is the opportunity for people to mass protest. It means that where we would possibly look at certain events and say, 'yes there'll be a lot of people there, there'll be a lot of banner waving, but generally it will be peaceful', [now] we have to make sure these elements [“extremists”] don't come out and hijack that event and turn that into disorder." 

There are also reports that a secret police intelligence unit has been set up to spy on political groups, to mount surveillance and run informers on “domestic extremists”.  The unit is being set up by the unaccountable and secretive Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) and will be based at Scotland Yard. Acpo was instrumental in co-ordinating the attacks on miners during their 1984-5 strike. 

Postal workers should challenge their leaders to start from these realities and mount a real, militant campaign against the Royal Mail sell-off. They would find ready allies throughout the country if they were involved in action to defeat and bring down New Labour to defend their jobs and pensions.  Any other course is sure to reinforce the government’s determination to pursue its role as the agency of big business. 

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor


Monday, February 23, 2009

Torture on New Labour's hands

With the expected arrival back today of Binyam Mohamed, the young British resident held for four years in the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison camp after his “rendition” by American forces in Pakistan, New Labour’s complicity in his torture has become blindingly clear. 

In past years, rogue soldiers, lawyers and whistleblowers have gone public to detail kidnapping, interrogation, physical and mental torture carried out in secret prisons around the world – and how European governments have connived in “rendering” suspects from country to country in their “war on terror”. 

What has been less widely known is the connivance of the British secret services and government in these illegal acts of barbarity. But now the evidence is pouring in thick and fast and New Labour will have trouble wriggling out, even though Foreign Secretary David Miliband claims that the UK does not condone torture. 

Clive Stafford Smith, the courageous lawyer who has represented Binyam, notes: “The fact that British intelligence was being used by torturers doesn’t in itself prove that the British knew torture was going on. But, given what we now know, they are at best pleading guilty to an unbelievable lack of curiosity”.   

Stafford Smith says that the UK government is suppressing evidence of torture. “Every essential of Binyam’s story [torture in Pakistan at the behest of the US authorities, rendering to Morocco and more torture, imprisonment in Bagram air base, Afghanistan, isolation in Gitmo, etc] has been corroborated,” Stafford-Smith says. “We have slowly dragged the torture documentation from unwilling governments on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet virtually none of these documents have been made public.” 

A month after Mohamed’s seizure on April 10, 2002, a British agent came to see him in Pakistan, allowed in by his American captors. The agent B encouraged Binyam to co-operate with his captors, and assured him that the British would look into his case. What Mohamed did not know was that the Americans had already shared a number of documents with the British. “These included admissions by American agents that they were torturing Binyam. Yet Agent B did not even ask him how he was being treated. Binyam was then rendered to Morocco,” says Stafford Smith. 

“He told me that his darkest point came one morning in Morocco. For the four months after Agent B’s visit, he waited for the British cavalry to appear. It was a mirage. Marwan, his Moroccan torturer, came into the interrogation room with questions and photographs that had clearly been provided by the British.” 

Stafford-Smith’s account is powerfully corroborated by the respected US organisation, Human Rights Watch (HRW). Despite detailing its concerns to the UK government as far back as last October, HRW has received no response. New Labour was clearly in a crisis at that time, as the attorney general had to decide whether there was to be an investigation into the treatment of Mohamed by British spooks.

HRW investigator, Ali Dayan Hasan led an investigation based in Pakistan, the results of which will be published in March. Sources within the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) provided “confirmation and information” that British agents colluded in the interrogation of terror suspects. These were not maverick elements, Hasan says, but “a significant number of UK agents”. He has collected evidence that M15 questioned at least 10 British citizens after they had been tortured by Pakistani intelligence agents. The HRW cites the case of Rangzieb Ahmed from Rochdale who had three of the fingernails of his left hand removed. Ahmed was later convicted of being a member of al-Qaida at Manchester Crown Court without the jury being told about this. 

Despite the phasing out of Guantanamo, there are still 1,100 prisoners being held beyond the rule of law in Bagram air base in Afghanistand, where they have no human rights whatsoever, a position confirmed by the Obama administration at the weekend. Thousands more languish in secret prisons in Iraq, Dijoubti, on prison ships, or are held by US proxies in Jordan, Egypt and Morocco. Voiceless human beings, rendered, tortured and victims of the Anglo-American “war on terror”. 

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary


Friday, February 20, 2009

A global protection racket

Global car maker General Motors is demanding an additional $18 billion in addition to the $13.4 billion in loans already received from the US Treasury to keep it afloat whilst it slashes jobs and production. Its Chief Executive Officer Rick Wagoner says “We have to structure the business so we can be viable at dramatically lower volumes. The industry sales volume is running 40 percent lower than in 2007.”

They plan to shut 14 manufacturing plants around the world and throw 47,000 workers on to the streets, adding to 600,00o workers losing their jobs every month in the US. There, the number drawing unemployment aid has jumped to a record high of nearly 5 million as the slump deepens. Steven Wieting, an economist at Citigroup in New York, said the data was "consistent with a very quick sharp rise in the unemployment rate and that's going to continue for the next few months because production data are correcting very sharply."

GM is also issuing threats to the Swedish government, demanding that unless Sweden pumps money into the loss-making Saab which GM has owned for 20 years, it will abandon the company to its fate. Saab directly employs 4,100 workers in Sweden, with another 10,000 employed through sub-contractors, out of a total population of just 9 million. Unemployment in Sweden is also rising at an alarming pace. It jumped from 6.4pc to 7.3pc in January alone.
This is a new, doubly inverted type of protection racket. In the past the threat would be ‘pay us not to destroy your business ’. Now it is ‘pay us to destroy our business.’

Government advisers like to use phrases like ‘a managed contraction.’

They are trying to avoid the sudden shocks like the one delivered in the UK to BMW’s 850 contractors in Cowley, earlier this week, sacked with one hour’s notice, unleashing fury against the union leaders who’d known it was coming. The best they could offer to the angry workers was to say ‘it’s the times we’re living in’, and ‘the way it has been done is a disgrace after we’d negotiated three weeks notice.’ Thanks very much.

Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley, the joint leaders of Unite, Britain’s biggest union are on the side of the racketeers, warning that without “urgent assistance, UK manufacturing will not recover after the recession”.

They held what they termed “crisis talks” with Alistair Darling on Thursday to lobby the chancellor for a “strategic support package” for the car industry. Unite argued that billions of pounds more were needed, including state subsidies for jobs. The union said it called the meeting because of “fears that a plant closure in the car industry is imminent”, saying this would “have a devastating effect on UK manufacturing”.

As in the US, any state support will be used to finance ‘restructuring’, protecting profitability not saving jobs. Just like the trillions poured into the banks the sole motivation is to try and preserve something for when the mythical recovery starts.

The logic of the capitalist crash demands a destruction of productive capacity on a scale never before seen. No defensive programme or policy for jobs can withstand the devastation that must come before the economic basket-case hits bottom.

The only policy for jobs is for workers to a make a pre-emptive strike – occupying all factories, plant, refineries, offices and land to prevent their closure, before they are sent home, the gates locked and the sites cleared. These valuable resources must be secured against destruction and plans prepared for a new kind of economy – producing the things we need rather than profits for shareholders.

Gerry Gold
Economics Editor

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Policies for the global food crisis

The food crisis may have slipped from the headlines, but almost a billion people face starvation in 2009. Drought and high prices, along with a diversion to bio-fuels and higher costs in the West, will reduce production in most of the world's major grain producers.

A report from the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) this week warns that food shortages are growing. In Eastern and Southern Africa, almost 30 million people face hunger due to three years of drought caused by global warming, combined with political conflict and the market system imposed by corporate globalisation.

Half of China's winter wheat harvest has been hit by drought and India is experiencing low rainfall. In Argentina, a year-long drought has killed nearly one million animals and destroyed half the grain. It is the same in Paraguay and in Uruguay average rainfall fell by more than third in the last twelve months.

The FAO report says that not only are the poor getting poorer, but formerly better off people are eating less. They are cutting back on education and health costs to buy food, and selling the assets they rely on for the future, such as land, tools, livestock.

Richer countries are not immune. In Australia, the coastal areas where agriculture thrived are now marginal for production, due to drought. In California a third year of drought is adding to an economic crisis that has Governor Schwarzenegger trying to balance the books with a tax increase, which the state legislature won’t pass.

California has the highest increase in unemployment and the largest number of home repossessions in the US. Things can only get worse – the melt water which is the basis of its agriculture, is coming to an end as rapid melting shrinks the mountain glaciers.

Meanwhile, the global chemical corporations continue their programme of trapping every farmer – large and small – in their net. The UN is desperately trying to win support for a new legal regime that stops patenting of crop varieties, but the powerful elites will ensure they don’t succeed.

And while drought resistant varieties are urgently needed, if developed in the current profit-driven system only the largest industrial farms will benefit. Small and medium sized farms will disappear.

However, there is another way forward. Here are some proposals:
  • The whole chain of food production is taken out of the hands of profit-driven corporations – both agri-business and supermarket chains.
  • Working democratically, farmers, distributors and consumers develop a holistic, sustainable, not-for-profit system that feeds everybody. 
  • Land is brought into common ownership and producers are supported with fair prices.
  • To counter the immediate crisis, drought resistant varieties are developed with public money diverted from weapons production.
  • A new system of fertilisation is introduced, with composting carbon waste a legal requirement. Crop rotation is reinstated and a focus on local food reduces the need for mono-culture.
  • Farmers in very marginal farming areas are helped to sustainably grow bio-fuels, to power their own homes, schools, hospitals and earn a livelihood.
What does everybody think? For years the system of “aid to poor countries” has failed and under the impact of global warming is collapsing altogether. The poorest in every country – even in California – are facing hunger in 2009. We have a chance to prevent it – but we need to act now.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Looking after our own interests

Those with money can; those without are expected to take the punishment. If you’ve got resources, you move them out of stocks and shares and into gold and even jewellery. If you’ve just got your labour power to sell, you will be on the receiving end of the redundancy notice, short-time working and, coming soon, pay cuts. You will be expected to pay for a crisis not of your making.

Yesterday, the price of an ounce of gold hit record levels against the euro, sterling and Asian currencies on what one financial commentator said were “mounting concerns that global authorities are embarking on a ‘Zimbabwe-style’ debasement of the international monetary system”. Investors point to the virtual elimination of interest rates and the printing of money that is getting under way. Earlier in the week, gold soared to new heights on fears that Eastern Europe's banking crisis could trigger a wholesale collapse of the global financial system. It is now nearly $1000 an ounce. “Emerging Europe is the sub-prime of Europe and now everybody is running for the door,” one analyst commented.

Using gold as a store of wealth is a return to the precious metal’s role in ancient times, before the development of paper money under capitalism. "People can see that the only solution to the credit crisis is to devalue all fiat [government issue] currencies," said Peter Hambro, chairman of the Anglo-Russian mining group Peter Hambro Gold. "The job of central bankers is to allow this to happen in an orderly fashion through inflation. I'm afraid it is the only way to avoid disaster (!), but naturally investors are turning to gold as a form of wealth insurance."

But what about those without access to wealth on this scale? What about the tens of thousands of car workers in America and Britain who have lost their jobs or are about to do so? What are they supposed to do? What are about people who are losing their homes because they are out of work? Or people’s whose savings and pensions have been eroded or wiped out altogether? Who looks after their interests? The straight answer is no-one.

The capitalist state is designed only to enhance and defend the interests of powerful vested interests – which today means global corporations and financial institutions. If that means governments throwing billions at bankrupt banks, that’s what will happen. If that means giving corporations money so they can sack workers, as is happening in the United States with the car companies, then so be it.

Do union leaders look after workers’ interests? Do they hell! The leaders of the major unions have sat on their hands and watched as jobs disappear. In fact, they often collude with management. They make pathetic appeals to governments to keep plants open to be ready for an “upturn” in the economy. Their faith in the capitalist system is actually more boundless than that of capitalists themselves. They understand that when Japan’s exports collapse by 45% in a few months, as they have done, the world economy has actually fallen off a cliff already.

As no-one is looking after our interests, we have will to take care of them by ourselves, through co-ordinated action to change how real power is expressed and exercised in society. To stop the economic collapse from destroying the lives requires a bold challenge to capitalist economic and political power. The ruling elites have lost the right and the authority to govern us by presiding over and encouraging an unsustainable economic system that is in freefall.

Only a transfer of effective power can enable us to reorganise the economy to produce for need and not profit, and to shut down toxic banks altogether in favour of a mutually-owned and controlled financial system, along the lines suggested in our Charter for Democracy.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

New Labour flounders as old order crumbles

When the prince of darkness – aka Lord Mandelson – tells his fellow New Labour ministers not to panic, you can be sure that is exactly what they are doing. The reason is simple. Social anger is mounting as the economic crisis worsens almost by the hour and the government appears to have no sense of purpose or grip on the crisis.

Political intrigue is more frenzied than ever as ministers compete with one another for future dubious spoils, such as the leadership of New Labour. Some brief that Brown is shortly off to head a new global body designed to regulate international finance (!), while others are undoubtedly stoking the fires under David Miliband, the foreign secretary, for his department’s role in the torture of a British resident in Guantanamo. Miliband famously fluffed a challenge to Brown last year.

But Mandelson’s plea for the government to “handle expectations”, “keep a steady nerve and cool judgment” and not be “pushed into hurried judgments because we fear accusations of indecision" will make little or no difference. The pace of events is phenomenal, as is their dynamic, with the old economic order crumbling before our very eyes.

Not long ago, Lloyds Bank was regarded as a boring, safe bank. Forced by the government last autumn into a shotgun marriage with HBOS, today its shares are worth just 50p each. The debts of HBOS are equivalent to the entire capital of Lloyds. And there is worse to come. During the property boom, HBOS lent massively to commercial property developers, hotel chains and leisure companies. Most of these loans are secured against assets now worth far less while as the economy worsens, many of the borrowers are going bust. It seems Lloyds will be back for further state aid. Yesterday prime minister Brown defended the merger as the right thing to do at the time.

Meanwhile, as New Labour makes the saving of the capitalist financial system its sole priority, jobs are disappearing in the real world as recession turns to slump. Yesterday’s instant sackings by BMW in Oxford led to an angry response by the 850 agency workers laid off in the most brutal fashion. Not all of it was directed at the company either. One report says sacked workers threw eggs and fruit at union representatives, accusing them of betrayal. It appears they were in secret talks with BMW about redundancies.

One agency worker, Silvia Fernandes, said: “I've never been sick, I've never missed work and they tell me one hour before (the end of my shift) that I have been sacked. That's not on. That's why people are angry and so upset with BMW and with the union.” Others vented their frustration on new cars at the plant, scratching bonnets with keys, smashing dashboards and hiding ignition keys.

Agency workers, of course, have fewer rights than permanent staff and their vulnerable position owes much to a rotten deal with the government after a half-hearted campaign by the union leaders which left them out in the cold. The angry scenes at Cowley follow on from the explosive strikes by oil refinery workers earlier this month and augur social turmoil on a mass scale.

In the United States, Washington's new director of national intelligence, retired Admiral Dennis Blair, has warned that "the primary near-term security concern of the United States is the global economic crisis and its geopolitical implications”. It could trigger, he said, a return to the "violent extremism" of the 1920s and 1930s. While the New Labour government flounders, you can be sure that at the heart of the British state, similar views are being expressed and that scenario planning is well advanced. It would be a mistake to think otherwise as attention turns away from terrorism to dealing with wider, social unrest.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

Monday, February 16, 2009

In praise of Russian revolutionary art

Tate Modern’s exhibition of art from the Russian Revolution has received ecstatic critical acclaim. And rightly so. The two artists in the spotlight, Alexander Rodchenko and Liubov Popova, made paintings and art works which retain their excitement nearly 100 years later.

By limiting the scope of the display to the years 1917-1929 and to the contribution of only two artists, we can appreciate their particular contribution – their freedom and breadth of vision. Initially inspired by Picasso and Braque’s Cubist revolution (in painting), Russian artists took up the baton of abstraction and ran with it. They were lifted up and borne by the triumph of the October socialist revolution of 1917

Rodchenko and Popova and their fellow artists saw even greater possibilities in something that had been confined to artistic creation, and made it part of a social political transformation. The scale of this movement was vast, encompassing all the arts. It became part of a cultural sea change which swept through the young Soviet Union.

A major difference between Paris and what was happening in Russia was the involvement of women artists at the highest level. In this show, Popova is revealed as temporarily greater than Rodchenko in her abilities, although he outlived her by 32 years. And, how unprecedented that of the five artists in the famous 5 x 5 = 25 exhibitions held in Moscow in 1921, three were women.

“The Bolshevik Revolution aimed to transform an entire civilisation, and artists were among the first to show their support,” says the Tate’s handy guide. Contrary to the often churned out prejudice that “revolutions suppress creativity”, here we can see the imagination take off. And from abstract art, Rodchenko and Popova and their colleagues Exter, Vesnin and Stepanova moved seamlessly to designs for textiles, theatre, posters and as well as making photographs and films as they sought to use their talents to transform every day life.

This was not some fantasy world but part of state-sponsored initiatives to lift the country out of back-breaking primitivism. Rodchenko’s design for the cover of Leon Trotsky’s Questions of Everyday Life is on view in Room 9. In this book, the co-leader of the Russian Revolution argued for the emancipation of women from domestic slavery and the introduction of socialised childcare.

The Bolshevik government under Lenin and Trotsky appointed Anatoly Lunacharsky as the first Soviet People’s Commissar for Enlightenment, Narkompros. The aim was to encourage artistic diversity and to avoid endorsing any single artistic current or style however “left” it might be. Talented artists such as Kandinsky, Chagall, Tatlin and El Lissitsky were appointed directors of art training in colleges around the country.

In the closing section of the show, the curators note Constructivism was “marginalised” as the Stalinist doctrine of Socialist Realism became the sole approved artistic style of the Soviet Union. One poignant vintage photograph shows Rodchenko together with the young composer Dmitri Shostakovich seated at his piano alongside theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold and the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky.

All four were to have grievous relations with Stalinism in times to come. Their subsequent fate and that of the revolution as a whole does not come within the scope of the exhibition’s timeframe. But those events, terrible as they were, do not detract from the brilliance and glory of that moment after the revolution that was to change the world artistically speaking, as well as socially. The need for contemporary creative and political revolutionary vision, in the spirit of Rodchenko and Popova, goes without saying.

Corinna Lotz
Secretary, A World to Win

Friday, February 13, 2009

Hoping for the best - preparing for the worst

When the Governor of the Bank of England says it out loud, it’s because it has already happened. As Mervyn King said himself, he’s not paid to make predictions. It’s why only six months ago he didn’t even acknowledge the possibility. So, in confirming the obvious he says the UK economy faces its deepest recession since the post-war years of 1945 and 1946, and its worst peacetime decline since 1931.

He has also warned that unless governments around the world are able to bring the banking crisis to an end, the consequences for the economy could be even worse. Can they do it? Can they hell! And the gamblers on the financial markets know it.

When Barack Obama’s treasury secretary Timothy Geithner this week presented the vaguest outline of his $2 trillion plan to buy the banks’ bad debt (how crazy can he be?) investors started piling in – but to buy Japanese government bonds. Rather than attracting funds to the promise of a recovering US economy, Geithner’s offer actually drove them away. In fact, the extent of US government bail-outs, far from easing the credit crunch, has actually forced up the cost of borrowing. Buyers of government debt are demanding higher returns because of the risk.

As one leading commentator explained: “Who can blame bond vigilantes for going on strike? Nobody wants to be left holding the bag if and when the global monetary blitz succeeds in stoking inflation.” The switch from American to Japanese bonds is no vote of confidence, however. In fact, it’s a desperate move because the crisis in Japan is perhaps the gravest of all.

Japanese companies are forecasting an 83% decline in profit this year. Next week’s figures are expected to show that economic output is falling at almost three times the pace of contractions in other major economies and could plummet by as much as 50% by the middle of the year. With the world economy in freefall, external demand has collapsed, especially in “emerging markets” of south-east Asia. Exports from Japan fell by almost a quarter in the fourth quarter as global credit markets seized up.

Toyota, Toshiba and Hitachi are forecasting losses and have fired thousands of workers. The sackings have intensified in the last two weeks, with Nissan, NEC and Panasonic announcing a combined 55,000 job cuts. The jobless rate surged to 4.4% in December from 3.9 percent, the biggest jump in four decades. “You’re getting mass unemployment,” said Martin Schulz, a senior economist at Fujitsu Research Institute in Tokyo, Schulz. “It’s really scaring the households.”

Obama’s America is also shedding jobs at a record rate. The number of Americans collecting unemployment benefits rose to a record 4.81 million in the last week of January as companies such as Caterpillar and Home Depot slashed jobs. The U.S. lost 2.6 million jobs last year in the biggest workforce reduction since 1945. “The housing sector was already weak, and now we are seeing deeper employment reductions,” said Brian Bethune, chief financial economist at IHS Global Insight. “Every round of job cuts means fewer people who can get a mortgage and buy a house.” Sales of properties with mortgages in default accounted for 45% of all transactions at the end of 2008.

There is a last throw of the dice left to try and get the capitalist economy off intensive care – the printing of money (or “quantitative easing” as it is euphemistically known as). Governor King said that the Bank of England was moving in that direction. The capitalist press regards it as a "last chance solution" (or should that be "saloon"?), with the Evening Standard saying: “These are uncharted waters; in unprecedented times, Mr King can only hope for the best.”

At the same time, the ruling elites are preparing for the worst. In Britain, New Labour is in government but hardly in power and is disintegrating under the tsunami of events. These are also unchartered waters politically and we should redouble our efforts to build a movement for change around the demands of the People’s Charter for Democracy.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Adapt to climate change - on our terms

Climate scientists have called an emergency meeting in Copenhagen next week to demand that world leaders take immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to start preparing society for the impact of climate change. As Australia counts the terrible cost of bush fires, and wheat prices soar in China due to prolonged drought in grain growing regions, the results of climate change are already apparent.

Scientists will update the 2007 International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report to reflect the speed-up in the melting of ice caps, and the inability of oceans to absorb any more CO2. They will say that a 2ºC increase in global temperature is probably no longer avoidable, and former head of the IPCC Bob Watson argues they should prepare for an average rise of 4ºC.

Some might be taking comfort that the slump in production arising from the global economic crisis will solve the problem. Japan says it will produce 50 million tonnes less CO2 this year as output collapses, for example. But as emissions from industry reduce, other sources are increasing. More widespread forest fires, a switch to cheaper, dirtier forms of energy and an end to investment in alternative energy projects – all of these will keep emissions high. The greenhouse effect itself, fuelled by the carbon already in the atmosphere, will not go away – winter ice will go on receding and tundra’s will go on melting, releasing formerly trapped CO2.

Market-driven measures, which are the only international political response so far, have also fallen apart. Carbon credits, for example, have lost two-thirds of their value in the last six months and the slide continues. Now that the market has failed, the next big thing is techno-fixes. The Obama presidency is investing in hydrogen-fuelled cars and bio-mass fuel from cellulose – processes that use more fuel than they create.

More bizarre ideas are out there. Two newly-formed corporations plan experimental dumping of iron filings or urea into the oceans. They want to grow a carpet of plankton that will hold carbon deep in the oceans for ever. The fact that governments have not banned these reckless experiments with the ocean eco-system is proof of how supine they are.

A new report from Corporate Watch looks in details at all the techno-fixes being considered and concludes that the only technologies likely to be delivered by the system are technologies that support the system.

Adaptation to climate change must not be a taboo subject. We need serious measures such as drought-resistant varieties of grains; plans to reduce the salination of fresh water at the mouths of deltas, strategies for big movements of populations and so on. But if we leave this adaptation in the hands of the existing power structures, all we will get is further profit-driven experimentation with the planet’s eco-systems.

In terms of climate change, as with the banking system, the politicians will go on trying to sustain the unsustainable! We must remove their decision-making power to unite scientists with society in a democratic partnership. In this way we can first cut emissions by changing the way goods and energy are produced. And then, since we will have to live with the effects of the reckless capitalist experiment for many hundreds of years, we can plan to adapt in ways that reflect the needs of people, not profit.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Draw up the charge sheet!

If you were drawing up an indictment of those responsible for the present Great Crash, it would embrace more than just a few bankers delivering a well-rehearsed “sorry” before a committee of tame MPs as they did yesterday. Those in the dock would have to include governments like New Labour, corporate executives, those who run the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB) and the so-called regulators who turned a blind eye as global capitalism gorged itself on fantasy finance.

These are the people and organisations who between them promoted the expansion of an unsustainable system that is collapsing before our eyes. Today’s figures showing unemployment close to 2 million do not tell half the story. They exclude the current avalanche of job losses and the many who do not register. Unemployment in the UK is now increasing twice as fast as the average across Europe.

Here is some evidence for the charge sheet.

Take the prime minister, Gordon Brown. In June 2007 he told bankers that he had “been able year by year to record how the City of London has risen by your efforts, ingenuity and creativity to become a new world leader”. and that the City’s “remarkable achievements” marked “an era that history will record as the beginning of a new golden age for the City of London”.

As to the New Labour government as a whole, since 1997 it has introduced the lowest corporation tax of any major economy, privatised large areas of public services and retained the most draconian anti-union laws in Europe. Anyone who served in these governments has to be indicted for their contribution to the Great Crash.

The WTO, IMF and WB are responsible for promoting a globalisation that has been entirely corporate-driven, based on deregulation, the enforced destruction/selling off of public services, investment in cheap labour areas and the expansion of the capitalist market economic model into every part of the globe. All those in charge of these organisations should be indicted too.

Transnational corporations (TNCs), propelled by the need to grow profits year on year, expanded production by borrowing vast sums from the banks, setting in motion the world of fantasy finance. They also ravaged the earth’s resources and are largely responsible for the acceleration of climate change. The chief executives and directors of the TNCs should also find themselves on the charge sheet.

Bankers, hedge funds, derivatives speculators et al. With an economy based on corporate and personal debt, they naturally turned this to their advantage. Debt became credit and vice versa. Untold riches were made by packaging up bundles of debt and selling them on. Money begat money in a fantasy world that seemed to defy economic laws where value is only created by the blood, sweat of tears of people actually making something useful.

The leaders of the financial sector need to be charged with bloodsucking! They could be joined by their friends in the so-called Financial Services Authority, which was warned of the present catastrophe by a whistleblower but did nothing about it.

If you think this charge sheet is drastic, remember that a senior writer in the Financial Times urged society recently to shoot the bankers without ceremony. At least my way they’ll get a trial! And when the former masters of the universe and their political cronies are sent off for a very long period of rehabilitation before their possible reintegration into society, they’ll leave room for us to establish a saner, more rational, more democratic, more sustainable society and economy based on providing for real need.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Balls spills the beans

There are at least two conclusions you can draw from the admission by Ed Balls, the schools minister, that Britain is facing its most severe economic and financial crisis for more than a century: We have been systematically lied to about the severity of the rapidly developing catastrophe and the public is being softened up for dramatic political developments.

Balls, the prime minister’s closest political ally and economics adviser to Brown when he was chancellor, is, along with the rest of the government, privy to information we don’t have access to. So when Balls says that the crisis was "more extreme and more serious than that of the 1930s" and that these were "seismic events that are going to change the political landscape", he is only letting the cat out of the bag.

That’s why Downing Street was today trying to “explain” that Balls did not actually mean what he said, just as No.10 had to “explain” last week that Brown’s use of the D word in the Commons was also a “slip of the tongue”, and that the prime minister meant recession and not depression. A Freudian slip might be a more honest account.

For the New Labour government actually knows that the banking system is shattered and beyond repair, that jobs are vanishing at an unprecedented rate, that demand for everything except food has collapsed, that the pound is on its knees on foreign exchange markets and that Britain is the most vulnerable of all the advanced economies because of its reliance on a now broken financial sector.

And yet the government staggers from pillar to post, with a bail-out here and a bail-out there and a pathetic inquiry about City bonuses headed by Sir David Walker, who enjoyed and sanctioned bonuses when chairman of investment bank Morgan Stanley International. Walker earned the nickname Mr Whitewash after being closely involved in two previous inquiries – into the transparency of the private equity industry and ethical standards at BAe Systems – that led to little change.

Back to Balls, who told New Labour members in Yorkshire: "We now are seeing the realities of globalisation, though at a speed, pace and ferocity which none of us have seen before. The reality is that this is becoming the most serious global recession for, I'm sure, over 100 years as it will turn out." More to the point, Balls also them that they should remember how the politics of the 1930s “were shaped by the economy".

We are left to draw our own conclusions about what he implying. The politics of that period included fascism in Germany and Spain, military dictatorship in Japan and, of course, national, coalition rule in Britain following the collapse of Ramsay MacDonald’s minority Labour government in 1931. So which of these are we are being softened up for by Balls’ reference to “seismic events” that will change the “political landscape”?

None of these “choices” are acceptable yet the fact is that we now have a profound political crisis alongside the global economic and financial crisis. This is making itself felt in every country, including America where president Obama is already in some difficulties, in Spain, where the government is being overwhelmed by the growth of unemployment and in France, where Sarkozy is under enormous popular pressure.

At times like these, there is an all too apparent danger that the façade of the parliamentary democratic state will be torn aside in favour of some sort of emergency, authoritarian rule. Such a move will expose the capitalist state for what it is – an instrument for preserving the rule of the corporations and banks at any cost. Balls has spilled the beans and we should take note.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

Monday, February 09, 2009

The agony of the Tamils

The agony of 250,000 or more civilians trapped in 67 square miles in the north east of Sri Lanka as the army closes in on the Tamil Tiger movement is becoming ever graver. The desperate situation was revealed yet again this morning when a female Tamil Tiger blew herself up as she was travelling with civilians fleeing the fighting.

The brutal government of Mahinda Rajapaksa has spoken of an “endgame” in the civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or Tamil Tigers, which has gone on for 25 years. He is demanding nothing less than unconditional surrender from the LTTE.

Repeated shelling of hospitals in the war zone by government forces saw five artillery shells hit the 500-bed hospital in Puthukkudiyiruppu. According to Gordon Weiss, a spokesman for the UN in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, the hospital was one of the last functioning health institutions in rebel-held territory. “Our office is next to the hospital in PTK," Weiss said. "The hospital is the main refuge for people in the area. It is overflowing with kids and women. We are very concerned as both sides are using artillery.”

The Sri Lankan government has banned foreign journalists and independent human rights monitors from the Vanni area where the ethnic Tamil civilians are trapped. As a result, a major Human Rights Watch reportstates that, “the continuing suffering of the people of the Vanni remains largely unknown to the rest of the world.” Two major HRW reports compiled in December 2008 reveal the scale of the catastrophe affecting the Tamils. HRW squarely pins the blame on the Sri Lankan government, which has placed sweeping restrictions on humanitarian access and has a policy of “indefinitely detaining virtually all civilians fleeing from LTTE-controlled areas in military guarded camps”.

Meanwhile, the Tamil situation has been played down by the mainstream British media. Perhaps this is connected with British involvement in supplying parts for the Sri Lankan army. According to Foreign Office figures, Britain exported £1m worth of armaments to the Sri Lankan regime, with £12m worth of export licenses issued between 2006 and 2008, according to BBC correspondent Michael Buchanon. The vast majority of these, he told Radio 4, are for military use such as machine gun components, helicopters, sonar equipment, etc. Most of the hardware being used, however, is supplied by India, Pakistan, China and Israel.

Rajapaksa’s regime is not simply responsible for the detention and murder of Sri Lanka’s Tamils. Some of the practices it is blaming on the Tamils are actually being carried out by its own army. Allegations made by the United Nations children’s organisation, UNICEF, that young children are being abducted and made to fight the Tigers have been backed up by HRW.

Far away from the fighting in the North, there is also a climate of fear in the capital Colombo. The government has cracked down on dissent as it seeks to suppress any criticism of its policies. At least nine journalists have been killed in the country in the last three years with the latest brutal attack being on the Sirisa TV studio only last week. Two days afterwards a prominent newspaper editor Lasantha Wickramatunga known for his anti-government views was shot dead as he drove to work.

Sri Lanka’s Tamil-Sinhalese conflicts are the legacy of British imperialism, which played ethnic groups off against each other to further colonial rule. Ethnic tensions grew as the first government after independence sought to redress the Tamil-Sinhalese balance. Legislation was enacted which deprived a million Tamils from citizenship. In recent years the LTTE, formed in 1976, adopted a strategy based on terror, not only against the Sinhalese majority but against its own people.

These tactics play into the hands of the Sri Lankan government and armed forces. Despite the undoubted heroism of the Tamil fighters, the LTTE leadership has no strategy to win support from the Sri Lankan people as a whole, which is needed to bring an end to Rajapaksa’s state-sponsored terror and win self-determination for the Tamil nation.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

Friday, February 06, 2009

The only thing we have to fear is capitalism itself

The dispute over the use of imported labour at a UK oil refinery looks like a minor side show compared to the global disquiet over a key part of Barack Obama’s economic package. The president’s throwback to 1930s Roosevelt-style government spending, and its inward-looking Buy American component, is causing concern amongst ailing corporations, as well as countries dependent on exports to the US.

In appealing to the millions of Americans who’d already lost their jobs as the credit-led boom ended, Obama’s presidential campaign touted economic nationalism, using slogans like “Buy American, Vote Obama”. He promised a requirement for the US government to buy American-built vehicles in a grim echo of Gordon Brown’s infamous “British Jobs for British Workers” remarks.

The protectionist provisions in Obama’s economic package bill now in Congress, including the use of domestic steel and manufacturing products in infrastructure projects funded by the stimulus package, have had to be watered down because the US is signed up to the World Trade Organisation’s agreement on international tendering for government procurements. Even so, among the countries which didn’t sign up are China, Brazil and India, so they can be excluded from tendering.

Opposition to Obama’s plans is mounting among capitalist rivals. Japan’s prime minister Taro Aso condemned the proposals in the Japanese Diet, the European Union has warned of trade litigation, and Australia’s government talks of trade war. Should the Buy American provisions survive, retaliation from countries throughout the world is sure to follow.

Even American firms are fearful about the consequences of the turn to economic nationalism. Thomas Donohue, president of the US Chamber of Commerce, said: “Such provisions would cost American jobs, trigger retaliation from our trading partners, slow economic recovery by delaying shovel-ready infrastructure and cede our leadership role as a long-standing proponent of free and fair trade and global engagement.”

The US Chamber has a better idea of what’s coming than the new president and his team. In a blog on its site it says:

Then there’s the lesson of history, which is that protectionism in the 1930s made the Great Depression worse. Here is the Encyclopaedia Britannica on the Smoot-Hawley Act of 1930, which raised import duties to protect American farmers and businesses: "Within two years, some two dozen countries adopted similar ‘beggar-thy-neighbour’ duties, making worse an already beleaguered world economy and reducing global trade. U.S. imports from and exports to Europe fell by some two-thirds between 1929 and 1932, while overall global trade declined by similar levels in the four years that the legislation was in effect.

Now that the debt-funded markets for their commodities have crashed, no national or even international “stimulus” programme can put them back on the path to growth. Obama’s own pledge to bring a “new politics” to Washington is already running into the sand. His bill is under fire in the US media for being the same old “pork barrel” politics. His call in the Washington Post for bipartisanship and an urgent response at a time when unless action is taken “our nation will sink deeper into a crisis that, at some point, we may not be able to reverse”, made no impression on Republicans in the Senate, who simply favour cutting taxes for the rich.

What history has shown, and Marx explained, is that before a new period of growth can begin, the surplus productive capacity accumulated during the boom years has to be destroyed. The shocking increase in unemployment that sets worker against worker is just the starting point of that process of destruction. The real enemy is capital itself, and the corporations and governments that do its bidding. They must be stopped. To paraphrase Roosevelt's famous remark on his inauguration in 1932, the only thing we have to fear is capitalism itself.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Thursday, February 05, 2009

The sound of breaking glass

Waterford Crystal was established in 1783 by the brothers George and William Penrose with the aim of creating crystal “as fine as any in Europe... in the most elegant style”. This the Waterford Crystal company did, using the skills of gifted workers until 1851, when the company closed under the burden of heavy taxation. It was revived a century later and the crystal manufactured by Waterford (now Waterford Wedgewood) is very fine indeed. Elegance of craftsmanship may not be enough however to save the plant this time round

For once again the Waterford Crystal enterprise is in crisis with 480 out of a workforce of 700 to be made redundant with the possible loss of their pensions and without compensation. However, this time there is active resistance as the workers are at present staging an occupation of their factory and intend to remain for as long as it takes to either have the company nationalised, or to maintain it as a going concern until a buyer can be found.

There are no fewer than 100 occupying the visitor gallery at any one time with a rota system in use to maintain a round-the-clock presence there. In the last few days 12 of the men from the Kilbarry plant have also been occupying the Dublin offices of Deloitte in protest at the way they were treated by Deloitte partner David Carson, who was appointed receiver of the collapsing company in January.

Their action is certainly courageous and has won support from the Windows and Doors workers in the US and from other workers world-wide. Windows and Doors, it will be remembered, was the company that was occupied by its employees last year in Chicago. But there is something that unites both companies apart from their similar interests as workers. The same bank that withdrew credit lines from Windows and Doors, the Bank of America, has now done something similar to Waterford Wedgwood.That and the recession led Waterford being taken into receivership.

The Irish government has done nothing so far to assist, seemingly impervious to the enormous loss of such a high prestige enterprise. Waterford Crystal is virtually a national monument; something of the heritage of the country would be lost, this time possibly forever. It is not as if the company were not profitable, for in 2008 the company generated sales of €180 million in the US alone, not to mention the money it brought into the home country and the south-east region in particular. Tourist revenue accounts for a large chunk of the business and over the decades it has drawn an enormous number of visitors to the city of Waterford, as well as being a site of constant and reliable employment in the area.

The feeling of disappointment arises from the workers aiming at this point no higher than either attracting the interest of a buyer, or failing that, getting the Irish government to take it into state ownership. There is no talk of the employees taking it over and managing it themselves, as they certainly could, or of forming a cooperative. Nothing but the conventional business model is being considered here. This is understandable, for livelihoods are at risk and the possibility of finding other employment is low.

The union involved, Unite, is of the same mind as the workers in not being able to get beyond the business-as-usual mentality. The general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, David Begg restricted himself to basically warning that if Waterford Crystal were closed down that this could “discourage potential investors from buying the plant.” So once again expedience and the easy option is likely to render a fine craft and many fine craft workers totally expendable for want of a radical response and a little imagination. While Unite undoubtedly strongly supports the struggle, an opportunity to reach out for a genuinely exciting and inspiring outcome will be squandered unless the aspirations of the struggle are raised.

Fiona Harrington

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

In praise of Charles Darwin

The imminent 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution at a stroke revolutionised the way we see nature and our place in it, is not simply a moment for the celebration of scientific investigation. It also provides an opportunity to show how historical change takes place, both in nature and society.

Darwin’s great contribution was to analyse evidence he collected over a 20-year period about the abundant variety and difference in birds, flora and fauna and mammals. He collected fossils which showed that the earth was extremely old. This is the basis of his famous theory of the evolution of species, which he published in November 1859.

While he couldn’t provide all the proof at the time, the strength of his evidence was adequate to show that the creation of life on earth was not down to the invisible hand of God but that nature as a whole evolved in a self-related, self-moving fashion. This process of natural selection over millions of years of geological time led to new, more complex species as well as the disappearance of those that couldn’t adapt to the environment around them.

Darwin's ideas on the inheritance of traits was verified independently by Gregor Mendel's work on pea plants in far-away Moravia in the 1860s, although his work did not become well known until the 20th century. For the record, Darwin did not coin or use the phrase the "survival of the fittest" - the reactionary sociologist Herbert Spencer did.

Since Darwin’s time, further scientific developments have verified his theory of evolution. Carbon dating, based on the work of Marie Curie, can now reveal the precise age of fossils while the appearance of similar species on different continents is explained by geologists who can show that the earth was once a single big land mass, while the discovery of DNA in the early 1950s enables us to understand the transmission of inherited characteristics in humans as well as in other animals and parts of nature. Discoveries since Darwin in palaeontology reveal that Cambrian "explosion" - the seemingly sudden appearance of complex animals around 530 million years ago, was an example of "punctuated evolution" and not proof of creationism.

There were, of course, not one but two great revolutions in thinking in the mid-19th century. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels published their Communist Manifesto in 1847. This for the first time set out the evolution of society as a product of the class struggle. They showed how the contradictions within the system of production over time became untenable and gave way through revolution to another system, dominated by a new class. From this, they drew the conclusion that the working class, if it followed Communist leadership, was in a position put an end to capitalism.

Marx was impressed by Darwin’s theory because it indicated to him that society and the natural world underwent movement and change in broadly similar ways, although they were not and could not be identical. In 1873, Marx send an inscribed copy of the second edition of Capital to Darwin, who replied: “I thank you for the honour which you have done me by sending me your great work on Capital; & I heartily wish that I was more worthy to receive it, by understanding more of the deep and important subject of political Economy. Though our studies have been so different, I believe that we both earnestly desire the extension of Knowledge, & that this is in the long run sure to add to the happiness of Mankind.”

Darwin’s work is above all a refutation of scepticism about the possibility of knowledge. Marx’s contribution, in a similarly scientific way, shows the processes of change in society and the periodic interruption of apparently linear evolution through crisis, shock and revolution. We owe these great thinkers plenty at a moment in world history where an evolutionary leap is required.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Painting by numbers

Is there a connection between the purchase by the National Galleries of Scotland and England of a masterpiece by the 16th century Venetian painter Titian for a mere £50 million, and the man who claims to be in charge of the country, Gordon Brown? I only ask this because of the prime minister’s strange reference to the painter which left already bewildered political and economic elites even more bemused. 

Brown, who only the other month claimed to have saved the world economy singlehandedly by a series of masterstrokes (i.e. bank bail-outs), has finally bowed to events (the continuing collapse of banks and the deep recession) and acknowledged that, after all, global capitalism is still in dire straits. And what’s more, it’s Titian we should turn to for advice. 

Now, there’s nothing wrong in learning from one of the greatest artists of all times. But what did Titian have to say about the international economy? Perhaps as the Venetian Republic was the centre of global trading at the time, Titian new a thing or two about commodities and currencies, not to mention the odd rampage down the Adriatic to open up new markets? 

Unfortunately not. This did not stop Brown, however. As the World Economic Forum stumbled to a close in Davos at the weekend, Brown took to the stage and bizarrely compared himself to the celebrated Renaissance artist. “This is the first financial crisis of the global age,” he said, “and there is no clear map that has been set out from past experience to deal with it. 'I'm reminded of the story of Titian, who's the great painter who reached the age of 90, finished the last of his nearly 100 brilliant paintings, and he said at the end of it, ‘I'm finally beginning to learn how to paint,’ and that is where we are.” 

So presumably we will have to wait until Brown reaches 90 to find solutions to the crisis! No wonder the Tories made easy fun of him, treasury spokesman Greg Hands saying that the prime minister's political leadership was “more suited to painting by numbers”. But seriously, Titian did not spend his time staggering from one approach to another and was recognised by his contemporaries as "the sun amidst small stars". His application and use of colour influenced not only painters of the Italian Renaissance, but shaped the future direction of Western art. 

As for Brown, all he has shaped is the forthcoming demise of New Labour, which tied its fortunes to the fantasy world of corporate-driven globalisation, with the promise of permanent growth, stable markets, easy credit and personal enrichment. Brown is as confused as the rest of the elites as to why this has all come to an abrupt end, thus his wacky reference to Titian. 

Back to the purchase of Titian’s Diana and Actaeon. There is clearly something amiss when public funds are used to buy a painting from the Duke of Sutherland, whose ancestors led the brutal Highland Clearances. His paintings, along with the Queen’s massive collection which remains mostly hidden from public view, rightly belong to the nation - for free. Expropriating them and putting them on public display will have to wait, however, but hopefully not for too long. 

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

Monday, February 02, 2009

Unite against our common enemies

The angry walk-outs by engineers and construction workers at refineries and power plants around Britain in defence of their livelihoods is the first major - and explosive - reaction to the economic crisis in the UK. That said, the form these strikes has taken urgently needs redirecting. They cannot be endorsed so long as they are aimed principally against foreign workers. 

When strikers have the enthusiastic backing of the far-right British National Party because their main demand is “British Jobs for British Workers”, it is necessary to ask: What is going on here? When a few hundred Italian workers are too scared to show themselves in public, you have to say that this is shocking and unacceptable. 

The contradiction between the essence of this struggle and the form it has assumed is not surprising. Getting right to the heart of the matter - the emerging capitalist slump and the crisis of governments as unemployment accelerates - demands a united, revolutionary stance against the joint rule of global corporations like Total and client regimes like New Labour. 

Then, and only then, can we begin to find solutions to the immediate and pressing question of unemployment affecting workers who were passed over for jobs at Lindsey when the French-based global corporation Total awarded a contract to an Italian firm (which itself is sub-contracted by an American company) which brought its own workforce along.

If there were jobs available locally, then no one would be on strike. But how can employment, new jobs, be generated? That question won’t be answered by driving a few Italians home and lining up authentic “British” workers to take their place. If workers from Europe or elsewhere should not take “British” jobs does that mean that British workers in other countries should be driven home in similar fashion? 

Brown, who took up the BNP’s “British Jobs for British Workers” policy, says there are no ready solutions to the global capitalist crisis to hand and no lessons to be learned from history. In that case, he and his wretched government should go now because it is of no use to man or beast. Ministers like Lord Mandelson, with his contemptuous remark that workers should get on their bikes and look for work elsewhere in Europe, are deservedly hated by the strikers. 

Trade union “leaders” like Derek Simpson, who have done nothing to defend jobs during the recession and who now encourage nationalism amongst their members for the most opportunist of reasons, should also be got shot of. Simpson, on £200,000 a year plus a luxury house for life, free, is standing for re-election and is cynically using the dispute to help his campaign. 

The issues involved in the walk-outs are all aspects of corporate-driven globalisation: contracting out, sub-contracting, flexible labour, a European Union run by and for the corporations and a trade union movement which has halved in membership and now largely led by donkeys whose respect for Tory/New Labour anti-union laws remains unbroken. 

Dividing workers along national lines, as the Unite bureaucrats are happy to do, plays into the hands of the global corporations and the political parties that service them. Defending the action on the grounds that workers are the victims of globalisation, is simply kow-towing to backwardness, instead of raising the level of their struggle. Like it or not, there is a new internationalisation of labour. The point is to turn it against the employers, not go backwards to insularity and localism. 

Workers in Iceland, Russia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia and France have demonstrated against their governments. In Ireland, workers at Waterford Crystal have occupied their plant, providing an inspiration to every worker by challenging the right of owners to decide their future. Now is the time to move against an unsustainable profit-based system based on exploitation of human and natural resources. The epochal character of the crisis means that the time for defensive actions is past. 

It's not an accident that this sudden eruption of anger takes place in the oil industry - control over the use of fossil fuels is at the heart of the global crisis. If workers are unhappy at the way Total divides up jobs and plays one group off against another, then let the plant be occupied and the management driven out. Bring Total under permanent workers’ control and management as a first step towards reorganising the corporation. Decisions about the production and distribution of oil can be on a sustainable not-for-profit basis. 

Bring down New Labour, the bosses’ government! The government is in secret talks with the army and the police and could spring an authoritarian national government on Britain as the crisis worsens. Don’t give them the chance. Replace Unite leaders with those committed to fighting New Labour. 

Start to build local Assemblies to represent all workers of whatever nationality and origin, and other sections of the community, as a step towards transferring political and economic power to working people. 

Launch a programme of publicly-financed building projects to create new homes, schools and other infrastructure so that work is available to all who need it. 

Fighting for policies along these lines would take the strikes in a different, outward looking direction and inspire millions to join them in the project to transform society to one which puts the interests of ALL workers first. 

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor