Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Something's got to give

Economic storms continue to batter countries throughout Europe as their governments struggle vainly to keep their heads above the tsunami of debt.

After weeks of wrangling among the eurozone countries an agreement was reached on a support package staving off state bankruptcy for Greece and the collapse of the euro. Backing from the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank was judged sufficient for the country’s government to return to selling its debt on the international bond markets to raise the cash needed to fund its monumental deficit.

But international investors are yet to be convinced by the Greek government’s ability to impose its programme of further austerity measures on its unwilling population. The 5.9 per cent interest payments needed to attract buyers for its latest €5 billion issue turned out to be much higher than was hoped for.

Now the additional costs will have to be passed on in the form of deeper “structural reforms” which are certain to further destabilise the already volatile political crisis and intensify the conflict with the Greek trade unions.

Meanwhile, on Europe’s western extremity, Ireland’s National Asset Management Agency began operations yesterday as the country’s “bad bank”, buying up the “impaired assets” that litter the country in the wake of the global financial meltdown and continuing recession.

NAMA is just one part of the Irish government’s attempt to steady its economy, which has suffered the most severe contraction of any industrialised country: the value of annual national output shrank by a cumulative 12 per cent in the three years to 2009.

The basic idea is that NAMA will buy up the banks’ bad debts and valueless property, in the process cleaning up the economy so that those left standing can return to the old game of turning a profit.

But there were shocks in store when NAMA announced the scale of the operation. It has counted up the face value of the toxic debts in the economy and arrived at a figure of €81 billion, which is equivalent to almost half the total value of all goods and services produced in the country in 2009.

The new agency is highly experimental. Nobody knows if what it is supposed to do will work. The terms of its first round of purchases stunned the markets. It is buying property-based loans with a book value of €16 billion. But NAMA has the power to set its own price, and it has awarded itself a discount of 47% based on the current market value. The agency is set to become the owner of hundreds of pubs, empty office blocks, abandoned shopping centres and acres of unused farmland, as well half-finished housing projects abandoned by bankrupt speculative builders.

As part of the deal, the newly state-owned Irish banks are required to restock their capital balances after years of floating on thin air. They are €32 billion short, so they’ll have to sell off their valuable assets in the US, the UK and Poland. This action will reverberate throughout the world.

In the meantime just like Greece, Portugal, Spain, the UK the US, and a growing list of countries facing up to state bankruptcy, Ireland has to set about reducing its budget deficit which is the second largest in the eurozone after Greece’s. Something’s got to give - and it is already. The British state is apparently preparing for emergency political measures in the event of a hung Parliament after the upcoming general election to prevent a run on the pound. We'd be well advised to prepare for all eventualities ourselves.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The politics of the present

The case for hanging on to your vote in the general election, while exercising your democratic right to go beyond the present exhausted political system, has more to do with the way we look at the world than most other considerations.

What it boils down to is a choice between 1) a view that accepts that the world external to our thinking is in constant flux and change or 2) an outlook that bases itself on more or less eternal “truths”.

The first approach to analysing the real world acknowledges that all phenomena – including society and its component parts – eventually assume entirely new qualities, often within an old form. They are both the same and yet not the same at any given moment and this is the result of internal contradictions working themselves out as a process.

By contrast, the second outlook is inevitably rooted in the past. Although this view allows for changes, these are viewed as incremental and incidental. They are not allowed to invalidate previous assumptions. Needless to say, this empirical ideology predominates within contemporary capitalist society and helps to reinforce the status quo.

In our view, attitudes to the question of Parliament and the general election, which is likely to be called a week today and held on May 6, are dependent upon analysis. This must set out the qualitative changes that have taken place within the state and political system since working men won the vote in 1867. For example:

Is New Labour a modern form of the original Labour Party or an entirely new quality in the shape of a capitalist party produced by the corporate-led globalisation of the last 30 years? All the evidence and experience points to the second conclusion.

Is Parliament the centre of the political system? Was it ever? If so, it was a long time ago. As political scientist Anthony King notes in his recent book The British Constitution:

Commentators frequently refer to the decline of parliament – that is, the House of Commons – in recent decades, but parliament’s decline as a legislative assembly began in the middle of the 19th century and was complete by, at the latest, the 1880s or 1890s. Nothing much of constitutional significance has happened [to parliament] since then… It goes without saying that the British House of Commons is now, and has been for a very long time, the archetypal arena assembly. It is simply not equipped to function as a transformative legislature, and of course governments of all political parties are anxious to ensure that it never, ever becomes so equipped.

Can voters influence the course of events by participating in local, European and parliamentary elections? That is no longer possible.

As a result of globalisation, the capitalist democratic process has been undermined further. There is now a seamless relationship between government, state, corporate and financial power as well as external undemocratic bodes like the European Union and the World Trade Organisation. The government is accountable not to Parliament but to the markets. MPs are reduced to various levels of corruption to fill in their time.

So the case for taking the right to vote into new territory is based on what has changed. It’s time to move democracy on, and give the right to vote a new significance and weight. We could do this by encouraging people to create their own democratic bodies like People’s Assemblies. This would challenge the power of the existing state to decide, for example, that ordinary people should bear the pain of a crisis of capitalism that is not of their making.

Above all, it means living and thinking in the present, while learning from the past, and acting to shape the future in our own interests. You can be sure that whatever government emerges out of the election will be doing exactly the opposite.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Monday, March 29, 2010

The stakes couldn't be higher

The stakes are being raised in the confrontation between BA management and cabin crew members of Unite who are fighting to protect jobs and conditions. Coming a quarter of a century after the end of the biggest confrontation between unions and the state when the miners fought pit closures in a struggle lasting a year, the company’s reaction to the strike means it is more than just another industrial dispute.

BA chief executive Willie Walsh has overt and covert backing from the state in the form of New Labour and all the major political parties as well as every single major media outlet that endlessly highlight the predicament of stranded passengers. Newspapers like the Daily Star and the Evening Standard spend large sums to dish up the dirt on union leaders like Derek Simpson and Bob Crow.

The cabin crew strike is, therefore, a crucial test case. From the employer’s and government’s point of view, any resurgent trade unionism must be nipped in the bud. That is why there is similar hostility to the plan by members of the Rail Maritime and Transport Union to stage the first national strike for 16 years to block the loss of 1,500 jobs.

A few days ago, the BBC hosted a discussion on its “Moral Maze” programme in which it was said that the right to strike should not exist. This was supported by former Tory MP Michael Portillo. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has stated a similar view pontificating that “we cannot tolerate large-scale industrial disputes in this country, particularly at this time as the economy comes out of recession.”

While BA claims that the strike is costing the company £7 million per day, financial analysts in the City have estimated a daily loss of £15 to £20 million. Calling on BA to negotiate a “sensible” agreement, Unite estimates that seven days of strike will cost the company over £100m. When a company is prepared to sustain losses on this scale, Unite is right to say that BA “has embarked on an ambitious and expensive attempt to destroy trade unionism among its cabin crew”. But Unite leaders are failing to draw the key lessons from history and are pussy-footing around. We have been here before.

At “Digging the Seam”, a three-day conference held the University of Leeds last week, participants reflected on the consequences and legacy of the 1984-1985 miners’ strike. The outcome of that year-long confrontation was that members of one of Britain’s most powerful unions, the National Union of Mineworkers were compelled to return to work. Thousands of its members ended up in jail and thousands more sustained injuries due to police violence. Within a decade the NUM was reduced to a shadow of its former self by the destruction of the coal industry. Pit village communities continue to suffer devastation.

Just as then, the struggle being conducted by BA cabin crew and rail workers is more than just an industrial dispute. It is over rights to have a job and provide a service to their fellow human beings under terms which are not dictated by a management motivated solely by shareholder returns.

The history of a single union taking on a ruthless employer under conditions of economic and political crisis is highly relevant in today’s situation. Even more now than then, no single group of trade unionists in today’s globalised world and with a far smaller trade union movement, can take on and defeat a state-backed company.

These confrontations come as Alistair Darling admits that New Labour is preparing public spending cuts which will be "deeper and tougher" than Margaret Thatcher's in the 1980s. Treasury cuts will add up to a staggering 25% of departmental budgets and will last until 2017, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. It warns that Britain faces "two parliaments of pain”. The employers and the state have launched a war on several fronts. And Unite is funding New Labour’s attempt at re-election!

An increasing danger is that with the present bunch of union leaders patently incapable of learning from history and organising a co-ordinated resistance that defies laws banning solidarity strikes, groups of workers will be picked off one by one. Firm, decisive, bold leadership is key to the outcome of these struggles. At this point in time, its absence in the trade union and working class movement is there for all to see.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

Friday, March 26, 2010

Cashing in on global food crisis

The intensification of the global food crisis is bringing misery to millions but profits for investors and entrepreneurs as a massive land grab takes place at the expense of local people.

Just to underline the point, it was revealed this week that China’s Jin Hui Mining Corporation has changed its name to Natural Dairy (NZ) Holdings after buying a bankrupt family-owned New Zealand business using a mixture of cash and convertible bonds. The Crafar family’s empire has land, 30,000 animals, a milk powder production plant, 200 staff and around $200 million of debt.

It was also reported that 1,000 Cambodian villagers rose up against a local business tycoon and politician trying to force them to sell their land to him at a rock-bottom price. It is only the latest in a series of protests as politicians and landowners profit from the Phnom Penh government’s policy of giving concessions to foreign companies. These are mainly from China, Vietnam and South Korea, and are running mines, power plants and farms.

Under capitalism’s business-as-usual vision, rubber-stamped at Copenhagen, demand for food will rise by 50% by 2050 whilst water shortages, rising seawater and desertification, caused by uncontrolled global warming, reduce the amount of arable land.

This nightmare vision makes land look like one of the few safe bets for investors. It, as they say, a no brainer – increased demand + shrinking supply + rising prices = big profits. New investment funds spring up almost daily, bringing private investors into an area previously dominated by farming corporations and sovereign wealth funds of China, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States.

They are buying up thousands of acres of land and turning them over to industrial forms of agriculture. The long-term result will be the same as elsewhere – soil structure destroyed, yields falling, loss of species diversity and increased greenhouse gas emissions as virgin land and forest are broken up, releasing stored CO2.

But investors pay about one tenth of the price per hectare for land in Africa as they would in Argentina or the United States. When the soil fails? Buy elsewhere and move on.

You might think that as the world faces unprecedented famine, governments would be rushing to take control. But the G8 summit in L’Aquila in 2008 failed to get even a commitment on the issue. Now the World Bank is drafting a “code of practice” – which will undoubtedly be ignored.

The terrible contradiction is that while profits from food and land are increasing, agriculture itself – the actual foundation of human society – is going backwards. In six of the last eight years, world grain production has fallen short of consumption. In 2008 grain prices climbed to the highest level ever and though they have fallen a little, they remain extremely high.

Historically, the enclosure and privatisation of land was the foundation for capitalist development – it is time to reverse the process, with new forms of common ownership. Preventing famine means overcoming the alienation of human beings from the soil that, in the final analysis, is the source of all our lives. Holding land in common, with farmers’ rights protected, we can use our knowledge to solve organically the problems that herbicides and nitrates have intensified.

Instead of boosting the capitalist market in land, we can revitalise the soil by composting waste on a huge scale and ending the global drive towards grain-fed meat based diets, with a return to more natural, balanced diets. We should advocate a policy of no more land sales to investment banks and sovereign funds and fight to socialise the agri-businesses that dominate the food chain for profit.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Darling's budget deception

You have to hand it to Alistair Darling. Britain is in the midst of a major financial and economic crisis and all the major parties are planning unprecedented cuts in public spending after the upcoming general election. Except you wouldn’t know that from listening to the chancellor of the exchequer drone on yesterday.

The gigantic budget deficit that results from bailing out the banks and the global recession combined was left out of the equation in a bid to fool the electorate that all will be fine so long as you re-elect New Labour. And when he actually got round to talking about the economy, Darling’s forecasts for growth were soon dismissed by experts as fantasy figures. So much for truth and transparency!

Darling’s difficult task was to give the managers of global financial markets enough to hold off their attack on the government over borrowing levels whilst announcing attractive headlines to persuade people to cast their vote for New Labour in a few weeks time.

So, in an hour long speech full of detail, on the vote-getting side we heard an attempt to restart the housing market with stamp duty changes, an extension to the winter fuel payment for pensioners … and not much else. Only later, after the media had mostly lost interest, came the negative news, marked for the attention of the bond traders and currency speculators.

The yield on government bonds – the rate the government has to pay to borrow from the credit markets to fund the deficit – had begun to creep up, not by much, perhaps, but just enough to remind New Labour’s ministers who or rather what forces are in charge of the economy.

Swelling deficits worldwide are forcing governments including the US to increase their borrowing by issuing bonds, and the market is flooded. When that happens they have to pay more to get lenders to invest. The same happens when credit rating agencies mark a country down – as they did with Portugal yesterday, as its sovereign debt crisis deepened.

The unavoidable fact is that whoever lead the next British government will be required to launch an assault on almost every section of the population in an attempt to reduce the monumental - and increasingly expensive – public debt.

Every international gambler, every credit rating agency and every supranational agency like the OECD, the IMF and the European Central Bank is insisting that the assault must begin sooner rather than later.

And indeed it has already. Just like in Greece, Ireland, Iceland, Spain, Portugal and the once mighty US, millions of ordinary people are being forced to bear the cost of a crisis over which they have no control. In Britain, universities and hospitals are already feeling the heat as “efficiency savings” – aka cuts – take their toll.

Resistance is growing. As Darling prepared to deliver his holding operation 250,000 civil servants throughout the UK were on strike against cuts in redundancy pay and many were picketing government buildings. Brown shrugged them off in England, but in Wales, Labour and Plaid Cymru seats were empty in the National Assembly with some Assembly Members refusing to cross the picket line (but cynically working elsewhere). British Airways cabin crew are due to resume their strike action this weekend and rail workers are fighting job cuts and have voted to walk out.

Yesterday’s phoney budget reinforces our call to “Hang on to your vote” at the election rather than giving any of the parties a mandate to destroy services, alongside the building of People’s Assemblies which would begin to wrest control of our future out of the hands of the hedge funds and corporations.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Extrajudicial murder by CIA drones

The slap on the wrist delivered to Israel yesterday by foreign secretary David Miliband over the use of fake British passport in the murder of a leading member of Hamas in Dubai should not obscure the fact that “targeted assassination” is a policy that Washington carries out in Afghanistan and Pakistan with London’s blessing.

Miliband had nothing to say about the actual killing of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh by agents of the Israeli secret service Mossad, not even in a roundabout way that covered all eventualities. That’s because in private, New Labour and the US government support so-called “targeted assassinations” themselves – a policy that clearly violates international laws and could be considered a war crime.

Most days, for example, pilotless drones unleash a deadly attack on targets in Pakistan which, it should be remembered, is a sovereign state that has not given permission for its airspace to be violated by the United States in this way. This morning the BBC reported that missiles fired by a suspected US drone killed at least five people in north-west Pakistan's tribal region.

The missiles hit an area near Miranshah, the main town in North Waziristan district, bordering Afghanistan, officials said. The identity of those killed is not yet known. Hundreds of people, including a number of militants, have been killed in scores of drone strikes since August 2008.

For every Taliban fighter or Al-Qaeda leader killed, many more civilians perish as the missiles come out of a clear blue sky to hit their village. Earlier this year, Pakistan’s leading newspaper Dawn reported:

“Of the 44 predator strikes carried out by US drones in the tribal areas of Pakistan over the past 12 months, only five were able to hit their actual targets, killing five key Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders, but at the cost of over 700 innocent civilians. According to the statistics compiled by Pakistani authorities, the Afghanistan-based US drones killed 708 people in 44 predator attacks targeting the tribal areas between January 1 and December 31, 2009. For each Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorist killed by US drones, 140 innocent Pakistanis also had to die. Over 90 per cent of those killed in the deadly missile strikes were civilians, claim authorities.”

The drone attacks were sanctioned by George W. Bush in 2008 and have actually been stepped up by his successor. More attacks have occurred in the first year of the Obama presidency than all years of his predecessor.

The programme is operated by the CIA spy agency and the targets selected by agents in front of computer screens at the agency’s HQ in Langley, Virginia, half a world away. No doubt it’s like a video game for the operatives while the CIA officially denies the very existence of drone killings because it’s a “covert” operation. New York University law professor Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions since 2004, says his requests for US legal justification for what are effectively extrajudicial executions are always denied.

In August last year, Khaista Khan, saw 12 charred bodies after US missiles struck a small hamlet in North Waziristan. He said: “Americans are cowards. They are afraid of fighting man-to-man in a battlefield and that is why they hit from the sky and run away. Many people who did not support the Taliban previously support them now because the Americans are killing innocent people.”

Apparently, 44 countries have unmanned aircraft for surveillance. There are only two countries that use the drones for killing people. One is the United States. The other is, naturally enough, Israel.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A global 'twilight of the elites'

The spectacle of former Cabinet ministers Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon peddling their services to a fictional US company for rates of between £3,000 and £5,000 per day has brought Parliament into even greater disrepute – if that is indeed possible.

Last year’s expenses’ scandal revealed that this unlimited greed in the corridors of power is not confined to a few individuals. In the wake of the Channel 4 exposé of the former Blairite ministers, a BBC investigation found that 20 MPs had failed to declare free overseas trips on more than 400 occasions. Andrew Dismore, who is actually on the committee that is supposed to oversee the behaviour of MPs, breached the rules no fewer than 90 times.

But looking at the global picture, Britain’s parliament is not unique when it comes to evidence of abuse of power and trust. The crisis in the Catholic church has forced even God’s Rottweiler, Pope Benedict XVI, to apologise for priests who sexually abused children in Ireland.

One experienced Vatican watcher comments that “during four decades of reporting from the Vatican, I have never seen a graver crisis affecting the very credibility of the leadership of the world's longest surviving international organisation, the Roman Catholic Church”.

And, in the United States, Nation editor Christopher Hayes, writing in Time magazine, uses the phrase “twilight of the elites” in his depiction of the corruption and incompetence of “nearly every pillar institution in American society whether it’s General Motors, Congress, Wall Street, Major League Baseball, the Catholic Church or the mainstream media”.

In what he calls “the implosion of nearly all sources of American authority”, trust in Congress has dropped to only 12% of people expressing confidence in it in the last Gallup poll. Naturally Hayes does not describe this failure as a crisis of the capitalist system. Instead he blames the elites themselves – “the people who run the institutions, the bright and industrious minds who occupy the commanding heights of our meritocratic order”.

But in reality, a widespread feeling of malaise and distrust has become a truly international phenomenon in response to what is being revealed as the internal corrosion of the capitalist system and its institutions.

The Conservative party is now moving in to seize the ground opened up by New Labour’s promotion of bleak corporate power with talk of local democracy, parent-run schools and community-run local shops. On Saturday we had nothing less than the sight of former Thatcherite Michael Portillo’s television programme called “power to the people”, where he asked how politics could “engage” with local people.

Thus New Labour’s authoritarian state has opened the door for equally reactionary populists of the Right. They do this under the cover of encouraging “people’s power”. Naturally, the Tories’ strategies will lead to nothing of the kind, but they reveal yet again the hollowing out and implosion of the political system.

A hung parliament and possible national government could see authoritarians of the far right seizing their chance, posing as cleaners-up of corruption. Something along these lines facilitated Berlusconi’s rise to power in Italy.

It would be a grave mistake to underestimate the political fall-out of this widespread awareness - on a multitude of levels - that the existing state institutions are corrupt and unfit for purpose.

The notion that we should prop up this collapsing structure by casting a vote for existing parties at the general election is thus revealed not as an exercise in democracy but a futile effort to preserve the status quo at any expense. The crisis of the institutions and their leaders opens up an unprecedented opportunity to advance new and truly democratic alternatives.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

Monday, March 22, 2010

Don't let BA cabin crew fight alone

As New Labour ministers lined up with the right-wing press over the weekend to condemn the strike by British Airways cabin crew, you had to ask yourself what had the national leaders of the Unite trade union done to prepare for a confrontation that the company had clearly planned for some time. The answer is not very much.

While BA management implemented a systematic policy of bullying and harassment – suspending or disciplining 38 crew members, nearly half of them union reps – Unite joint leaders Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley were shocked by the turn of events. So much so that at a recent Unite national committee, they apparently turned on Len McCluskey, the assistant general secretary who was then in charge of the dispute.

Under marching orders from Gordon Brown to get the dispute settled, Woodley took over the talks and tried to broker a deal based on offering up more than £60 million in “savings” at the expense of the workforce. Finally, the penny dropped. Woodley announced that BA chief executive Willie Walsh was leading a war against Unite with the intention of undermining the union within the airlne.

Writing to striking cabin crew – who have defied vilification and slander to sustain their three-day strike against job and pay cuts – Woodley said: “I pledge that your union Unite is putting all its resources and strength into supporting your dispute and securing a decent agreement.”

If that were truly the case, then the cabin crew would not be left to fight alone. For it is clear that the strike-breaking operation mounted by BA can only be countered by solidarity action by other Unite members working for the airline. The future of the whole union is at stake and that is what the membership needs to be told.

That would require the union to defy the anti-union laws that ban solidarity action, legislation that was introduced by the Tories in the 1980s and retained by the present government. Cabin crew should demand that Unite’s leaders stop pussy-footing around and get serious if the union is to have a future.

It will be an uphill battle. Unite has given £11 million to keep New Labour afloat and is diverting huge resources in a bid to get Brown back into Downing Street. This is the same Brown whose foreign secretary David Miliband said yesterday: "We deplore the strike...the way to resolve these disputes is through negotiation. It's damaging for the company, it's damaging obviously for the crews and it's damaging for the country." From a strictly business point of view, you could say that Unite’s return on investment in New Labour is well below the bottom line.

BA’s problems are just one indication of the way the economic and financial system is taking its toll. The market for all sorts of goods and services, including flights, has plummeted in the recession. Capitalism has but one answer – cut wages, shed jobs and destroy capacity. And what does this do? It deepens the crisis and makes a full-blown recession a certainty. That’s how mad and bad this system is.

The assault on BA cabin crew is part of a general offensive by the employers – public as well as private – to destroy hard-won conditions like pensions and decent wages. Network Rail is doing the same to signal workers and the universities are planning large-scale sackings. And this is before the savage cuts in public spending that will follow the general election, whoever comes out on top.

Resistance to paying for the crisis is clearly building up. We urgently need a strategy that turns defensive action into an offensive that highlights the capitalist economic and political system itself as the problem. A good first step would be to “hang on to your vote” at the election and take part in building People’s Assemblies throughout the country.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Friday, March 19, 2010

History points the way

The idea of organising independently of the state in order to challenge the established political order, which we put forward in the shape of People’s Assemblies, is not new or foreign to British social history.

From the Levellers in the English Revolution of the 17th century, to the Chartists of the 19th century, through to the trade unions in the period following World War One, ordinary people have combined to confront the state.

The Levellers were the left-wing of the New Model Army established by Oliver Cromwell in the Civil War with Charles I over who ruled England – the absolute monarch or Parliament. Regiments elected representatives or “agitators” to the Army Council and these were recognised by the commanders. Levellers took many of these positions.

In the famous Putney Debates held in October 1647, the Levellers challenged Cromwell with a draft Agreement of the People, which gave everyone the vote and insisted that Parliament should pass no laws “evidently destructive to the safety and well-being of the people”.

The Chartists, who campaigned for the vote for working men, held various Conventions during their struggle which began in the late 1830s when an estimated 300,000 people assembled at Kersal Moor near Manchester. Typical slogans on the day were “For Children and Wife we’ll War to the Knife” and “Bread and Revolution”.

In 1839, the Convention of the Industrious Classes met first in London and then Birmingham. It considered what to do in the event that Parliament rejected the Chartist petition signed by 1.2 million people. Delegates adopted the formula of “peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must”. A manifesto of “ulterior measures” included a month’s general strike, a resort to arms and a trade boycott.

In 1848, galvanised by a revolution in France, the Chartist movement made a final attempt to achieve its demands through a petition backed by a demonstration of over 200,000 at Kennington. The government feared a revolution and blocked the bridges across the Thames.

The Chartists then convened a National Assembly for May 1 as a would-be rival seat of power to Parliament. Its aim was to continue sitting until the Charter was law. The Assembly took on policies way beyond the Charter, including the severing of the connection between church and state, the repeal of the union between Britain and Ireland, the employment of poor on public works and even a recommendation of arming the people. An insurrection launched in August 1848 was defeated.

After the February Revolution of 1917 in Russia, which overthrew the Tsar, the idea of Soviets or Workers’ Councils, which had spearheaded the movement against autocracy, spread through Europe. The Labour and Socialist Convention held at Leeds on 3 June 1917 was held expressly “to follow Russia”.

The conference attended by 1,600 delegates adopted a resolution that called on the labour movement to establish councils of workers and soldiers' delegates to work for, among other things, the complete political and economic emancipation of international labour. During the brief General Strike of 1926, workers’ council were established in some towns and became the effective power in the area.

Now that the right to vote has been neutered by an undemocratic Parliamentary system in serious decay, the conditions are emerging to reassert more fundamental rights to do with power and control over our lives. That is why we not only say “Hang on to your vote” at the election but also urge the building of People’s Assemblies as a possible mechanism for carrying through revolutionary change in the traditions of the Levellers, Chartists and trade unionists of earlier eras.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Bolivia stands firm as Europe/US abandon climate targets

Bolivia is leading a last-ditch stand to achieve a binding agreement on climate change through the United Nations Framework Convention in the teeth of opposition from the US and Europe.

Through a mobilisation of global public opinion, including a world referendum on climate change, and with support from some other countries, Bolivia hopes to force the issue of binding limits on emissions and “climate justice” back on the agenda of the next round of talks in Mexico in December.

But more than 100 countries have signed up to the charade of the Copenhagen Accord, which abandons binding targets in favour of countries declaring their “intentions”. The argument is that the Accord and not documents drafted through the UN process, should form the basis for future negotiations.

New Zealand has suggested the Kyoto Protocol Working Group should cease to exist while the European Union’s latest proposal is for emissions reductions of between 30-70% from 1990 levels. European governments have, in effect, abandoned the fight against climate change in favour of growth at any cost.

Speaking in New York this week, Bolivia’s UN Ambassador Pablo Solon said the fight to keep warming below 2 degrees has been discarded by the developed world, and that these countries seem to be ready to countenance even higher temperatures.

What is happening is that the developed economies are trying to push any substantive talks even further into the future, arguing that Mexico is too soon for agreement and that perhaps South Africa in 2011 is the place to make a deal.

Mexico should only address issues of mitigation, they say, and their desired outcome for the talks is that developing countries should sign up to emissions reductions. In return, a bit of money will be thrown at those most vulnerable to the impact of climate change. But this money will be guaranteed only through the carbon market.

There is huge pressure on small countries on the basis that if they agree, the paltry money pledged at Copenhagen will be handed over more quickly. It is like facing a robber who puts a gun to your head and stuffs a few dollars into your wallet at the same time. And when you take the dollars out later, you find they are fake.

A meeting in Bonn in April will set the basis for the Mexico talks, and the “77 plus China” group will continue to call for the UN process interrupted in Copenhagen, to be restarted. In reality there are big differences inside the G77, with India, China, Brazil and South Africa accepting that the substance of Copenhagen Accord should be brought into the talks.

Bolivia has set itself the goal of reaching two billion people with its global referendum, says Pablo Solon. It will probably contain a clause calling for an end to “capitalist consumer culture” to save the planet. Thousands of people are expected to attend the People's World Conference on Climate Change and Mother Earth Rights from in Cochabamba, Bolivia, from April 20-22. Organisers say it is intended to "give a voice to the people" on climate change after the failure of Copenhagen. The results will be presented by Bolivia at the talks in Mexico.

"The only thing that can save mankind from a tragedy is the exercise of global democracy," insists Solon. Quite right, but the reality is that nothing can restart the UN Framework Convention process. The rich countries have definitively abandoned it.

However, we do have an opportunity to start building democratic structures in every country, and through co-operation globally, to challenge the right of the corporations to continue to call the shots for people, planet and production. We can confront not only capitalist consumer culture, but capitalism itself.

With our call for people in Britain to “hang on to their vote” at the General Election and instead focus on building People’s Assemblies, A World to Win is putting forward a model for setting out on this revolutionary road.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Brown nails his colours to the hedge funds

New Labour’s Gordon Brown has spent his entire period in high office, first as chancellor, and more recently as prime minister, ensuring that the interests of the global financial sector are inextricably enmeshed with the British economy.

Yesterday he intervened personally on behalf of the gamblers and speculators to postpone European negotiations on trying to regulate the derivatives market until after the forthcoming election. Some 70% of the world’s hedge funds are based in London, with an estimated 80% of Europe’s hedge funds and 60% of private equity firms based in the UK.

Clearly it is they and the capital markets they operate that will determine what happens to the British economy whoever the Queen invites to form the new government in the next few weeks. The hedge funds have the power to make or break governments as they are demonstrating in the case of Greece.

Brown and his chancellor Darling are in cahoots with Timothy Geithner, Barack Obama’s Treasury Secretary in the US, in defending the freebooting masters of the universe. Last week Geithner wrote to EU officials warning that the directive was protectionist and would damage US funds. His letter angered Michel Barnier, EU commissioner for financial services, who said he was not amenable to pressure and would not take instructions "from Paris or London and certainly not from Washington."

Chancellor Darling, who lobbied his Spanish opposite number over the weekend, said Britain would seek more concessions because the current draft directive proposed by Spain threatened blocking international funds from the European market. The chancellor believes that this outcome would be “deeply damaging” to the hedge fund and private equity industries as well as to returns made by pension funds.

So you can see that despite the chorus of calls for regulation that echoed around the world during the worst days of the global meltdown, the interests of the capital markets make powerful governments of whatever political stripe into their servants, willingly or not. And the pressure is building, driving the elected governments of countries and unelected regional blocks into deeper conflict between themselves, but more importantly with their populations.

Brown’s two key interventions in two days – first supporting British Airways against the democratic decision by Unite members to resist the assault on their working conditions and income, and now putting himself between the European Union and the hedge funds, say more about New Labour than the tsunami of words that have already begun to flood the airwaves in the run up to the election.

The capitalist system of production together with the financial sector, its inseparable twin, express their requirements to capitalist governments which carry them out at whatever cost to the people they supposedly represent according to the mythology of “democracy”.

It’s one of the reasons why we call on the people to hang on to your votes in this election. Many people are asking how they can express their opposition when there is no party to represent their interests. In hanging on to your vote, we’re not suggesting that you sit on your hands.

We need to build a new kind of democratic organisation, one that will discuss how to transfer the ownership and control of land, finance, production, food distribution, housing and transport to the people who work in and use them.

To make a start, in response to the EU’s urgent warning to the UK to follow Greece in cutting public sector spending to reduce its debt, People’s Assemblies could organise a mass campaign to defy the financial masters. “It’s not our debt and we won’t pay it!”
That would be a start towards forming an international movement to defeat the power of capital in the form of global corporations and financial institutions in every country, uniting working people around the world against their common enemies.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Staying out of the hands of the state

The flowering in the numbers of civil society, non-state organisations, groups and campaigns is the reverse side of an historic decline in participation in formal political processes in Britain and an ever-increasing alienation from existing power structures.

That much is clear from a new report Making good society, which was produced by a commission set up by the Carnegie Trust under the watchful gaze of former New Labour advisor Geoff Mulgan. What is less certain is the path mapped out by the report for civil society in reshaping Britain.

The strength of civil society organisations is their relative independence from the state. It is where, as the report puts it, “people come together to pursue their shared interests, enthusiasms and values” on a not-for-profit basis, adding:

“In civil society, people come together freely as equals. Civil society has grown as an expression of the values of co-operation, solidarity, mutual commitment and freedom. It has complemented, influenced and challenged the formal institutions of democracy. And it has always stood for visions of a good society, as well as meeting more immediate needs.”

In 2006–7, the UK had 870,000 formal civil society associations with assets of £210 billion. Uncounted, but probably in still greater number, are the thousands of informal community groups that do anything from improving public spaces to campaigning for fee-free cash points, the report says.

Modern capitalist state structures, of course, stand for everything civil society doesn’t. The “values” of the state are about ruling over people, a partisan commitment to vested interests such as high finance and corporate power and a “freedom” so circumscribed that anything meaningful will certainly get you on to a more-or-less secret database. No wonder the commission found civil society so much more positive!

So much so that it would like to harness the untapped power and potential of civil society in “responding to the triple crises of our time: those of political trust, economics and the environment.” Don’t get too excited, however. We’re not talking revolution here. Quite the opposite.

For example, the commission wants a greater role for civil society in creating “stable, responsible and transparent financial activity”. This would be achieved, suggests the report, by “strengthening its capacity to influence financial institutions and regulators through building its own specialist institutions that have the knowledge and authority to challenge conventional financial thinking.” Or by “mobilising citizen investors, the millions of ordinary people with pension plans and savings, so that their future incomes are derived from companies that operate responsibly and sustainably.”

In reality, however, the financial system is on the edge of a precipice and pension schemes are in meltdown. Final salary pension schemes are being unilaterally wound up while the state has had to take on limited obligations of companies that have gone under. Now the state scheme itself is under threat.

After correctly pointing out that representative democracy in Britain was created in large part by pressure from below, principally through the struggle of the Chartists and Suffragettes, the report advocates using civil society to breathe new life into the political system through a bigger role for civil society in “organising deliberation, argument
and decision-making”.

However well-meaning, this is surely the wrong approach to civil society organisations. They flourish precisely because they are operate and exist in an environment that is largely self-created. Drawing them, as the report suggests, into solving society’s deep problems will lose them their independence. Nor would this answer the related crises of democracy, the economy and the environment. That will only come when the state itself is transformed and democratised through mass action because it is certainly beyond reform.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Monday, March 15, 2010

New Labour lines up with BA

There’s nothing like a looming national strike to bring out the true class credentials of the political parties, together with the baying hound-dogs of the media. The democratically-agreed industrial action by 12,000 BA’s cabin crew workers in defence of their jobs, pay and conditions is certainly having this effect.

Leaders of all the major parties are only too anxious to condemn BA workers. Leading the pack are New Labour’s Lord Mandelson and transport secretary Lord Adonis (NB: There are no elections to the Lords). Adonis said yesterday: “I absolutely deplore the strike… it’s totally unjustified.” Today Gordon Brown declared: “It's not in the company's interest, it's not in the workers' interest and it's certainly not in the national interest."

Never mind the fact that cabin crew staff have now voted twice for strike action with overwhelming majorities. In the latest ballot nearly 79% of the membership voted 80.7% for action. New Labour, you will recall, was elected with the support of 25% of all registered voters at the last election. As for turnout, the BA ballot is far higher than anything you can expect in the upcoming general election.

And the notion peddled by the Tories that New Labour is “soft on the unions” is complete and utter hokum – and they know it. It is a fact that Britain’s biggest trade union, Unite, has paid a total of £11 million into the Blair and Brown’s coffers since 2007. It is the biggest single donor to New Labour. Without this support, New Labour would be unable to survive. The £11 million has brought Unite nothing in return.

Rather than making New Labour more pliable towards the interests of trade union members, the opposite is true. The rights of trade unions are perhaps even more restrictive than they were under the Tories. Secondary strikes and effective picketing remain illegal because this government retained all the anti-union laws introduced by Thatcher. Union leaders, with a few honourable exceptions, have fallen over backwards to comply with New Labour and its capitalist policies such as bailing out the banks.

Willie Walsh, BA’s chief executive, who is paid £735,000 a year, is determined to sack up to 2,000 staff and undermine the union Unite. The company has been running courses for strike breakers ever since the union’s first ballot showed a huge majority in favour of strike action. Walsh plans to use a 1,000-strong force of strike breakers to keep a skeleton service running and to defeat the strike.

Instead of getting ready to mobilise its membership at Heathrow and other airports against this threat, Unite leaders Len McCluskey and Tony Woodley have expressed shock at Adonis’ outright support for BA management. But this is a false naiveté. The real danger for BA cabin crew is that Unite leaders and the Trades Union Congress will quickly buckle under pressure and impose some rotten deal on their members. In any case, McCluskey and company certainly have no intention of defying the anti-union laws, which would be necessary to defeat BA’s strike-breaking actions with solidarity strikes.

British Airways, like the economy as a whole, in a major crisis. Walsh knows what is at stake. He needs to enfeeble the trade unions to save the airline for shareholder returns. Pretending that New Labour will broker a favourable compromise deal because it faces an election is living in a dangerous cloud cuckoo land. Precisely because of the election, Brown, Adonis and Mandelson will take the hard line. The future of a private corporation like BA is more important to them than the jobs and pay of the workforce.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

Friday, March 12, 2010

Back the boycott of Israel

Some say it was bad timing or that one half of the Israeli government didn’t know what the other half was doing. In effect, however, the American government had its bluff called by a regime that has no intention of agreeing a deal with the Palestinians. Not now. Not ever.

Waiting until US vice-president Joe Biden was actually in Israel on a mission to restart stalled peace talks before announcing provocatively that 1,600 new homes would be built in East Jerusalem, was a calculated insult to the country’s main benefactor. America gives Israel more than $3 billion a year as well as the latest, cutting-edge military hardware.

Did Biden or President Obama respond by suspending aid? No way. With mid-term elections coming up and Obama’s popularity in free fall, the White House put the Israel lobby first and instead accepted humiliation at the hands of the Netanyahu government.

Palestinian leaders who had hoped that Obama’s election would bring change were equally humiliated. What now? Will the Palestinian Authority under the discredited Mahmoud Abbas unilaterally declare a independent state now that the prospects of negotiations with the Israelis are dim to non-existent?

Will the PA support the new Intifada or popular uprising that is beginning throughout the West Bank as ordinary people march on a weekly basis against the Jewish settlements and the wall that Israel has built to enforce its policy of apartheid? The protests are in fact so far receiving more help from Israeli activists than Palestinian officials.

For example, almost 130 supporters of Anarchists Against the Wall have been arrested inside the West Bank on joint protests with Palestinians. AATW say: “We believe that it is possible to do more than demonstrate inside Israel or participate in humanitarian relief actions. Israeli apartheid and occupation isn't going to end by itself - it will end when it becomes ungovernable and unmanageable. It is time to physically oppose the bulldozers, the army and the occupation.”

Other Israeli groups, notably Woman Against the Occupation and for Human Rights
and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions also oppose Israeli policies. But they are lone voices in a country where official Zionist propaganda paints Palestinians as natural enemies of Jews and treats those living in Israeli as second-class citizens in a distinct form of apartheid.

A two-state settlement is more and more a practical impossibility, even if the Israelis were ever prepared to negotiate. Nearly 300,000 settlers live in the West Bank, in addition to 180,000 Israelis residing in Jewish neighbourhoods built in east Jerusalem. The West Bank is criss-crossed by Israeli roads and checkpoints. The settlers would rather die than leave.

Gaza, home to another 1.5 million Palestinians, is under siege, its population living in horrific conditions as a result of sanctions imposed by the European Union and enforced by the Israeli and Egyptian authorities. Of course, it has no geographic connection to the West Bank. A single state for Jews and Palestinians is therefore a more progressive and even practical solution. It would have to be established on a secular basis to succeed and the collapse of “peace talks” gives added impetus to the policy.

Meanwhile, there is something practical we can all do. The global boycott, disinvestment and sanctions movement has called a second day of action on March 30 in the campaign against Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. The success of the first BDS action sent the Israeli government into a spin. That’s a good enough reason to back this year’s.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Biodiversity loss threatens us all

Almost 500 animals and plants have become extinct in England, and almost all within the last two centuries, a period which coincides with industrialisation and the merciless exploitation of the environment for profit.

A new report from Natural England highlights how habitat loss, inappropriate land management, environmental pollution and pressure from non-native species have all played a part in the erosion of England’s biodiversity.

All of the major groups of flora and fauna have experienced losses, with butterflies, amphibians, and many plant and other insect species being particularly hard hit – in some groups up to a quarter of species have been become extinct since 1800.

The report also lists nearly 1,000 native species whose survival is under severe threat today, and scientists working for Natural England fear that a tipping point has now been reached where the rate of extinction has outstripped evolution’s ability to generate new species:

“Although changes in species populations are a natural consequence of environmental change, recent technological advances have led to humans altering species’ habitats in ways and at rates that make it impossible for them to adapt. This has led to the decline and loss of many of England’s native species, losses that matter both for the intrinsic value of the species themselves, and because they are associated with damage to our natural environment.”

Or as Helen Phillips, Natural England’s Chief Executive put it: "Each species has a role and, like the rivets in an aeroplane, the overall structure of our environment is weakened each time a single species is lost."

The outcome of the past 30 years of globalisation, actively promoted by governments as the only possible way for humanity to live, is the marketisation of increasing areas of the planet. No land, habitat or species has any value to capitalism unless it can be transformed into profit.

And we can easily track this accelerating attack on bio-diversity by looking at how, as industrial production has migrated to Asia, so the rate of extinctions there has increased. Our closest ancestors are being wiped out, with more than 70% of primates now on the “Red List” of endangered species. Over half of all mammals are under threat globally.

This shows that the profit-driven capitalist market operates in ways which are the direct opposite of the evolutionary process first described by Charles Darwin. His phrase “survival of the fittest” is often wrongly connected to the notion that greed is good and the strongest will survive.

But in fact natural evolution works in favour of diversity and not in favour of reduction to the most powerful. “Fittest” in Darwin’s conception equals not physically strongest, but best adapted. In periods when our planet has provided ideal conditions for great evolutionary surges, species evolved to populate every nook and cranny, every biological niche, on land and sea, with a staggering diversity.

Darwin explains in On the Origins of Species “how plants and animals remote in the scale of nature, are bound together by a web of complex relations” and he adds that he uses the term “struggle for existence” in a large and metaphorical sense, “including dependence of one being on another”.

Unless human society begins urgently to use all its great scientific knowledge to reinstate, or finds ways of reproducing, this interdependence and co-operation between species, we risk not only the future of what the old religion called “lesser species”, but our own survival.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

In thrall to the markets

Governments across the world are engaged in a beauty contest judged by the ratings agencies which pronounce on their credit-worthiness, and the hedge funds which decide whether a country’s debt – its bond issues - are worth buying.

The closer a country like Greece, or Portugal, or Spain or the UK gets to defaulting on its debts, the more it applies the make-up to hide its decay. Greek prime minister George Papandreou is engaged in a two-pronged shadow play. It is designed to stop the bankrupt country’s ancient monuments – essential to the tourist industry from which the country derives much of it income – from falling into the hands of its creditors.

In act one of the country’s financial tragedy, Papandreou is implementing the first tranche of a broad austerity programme of savage cuts and tax increases. Act two is a world tour to gather support for a campaign to regulate the use of credit default swaps and other derivatives by speculators gambling on the likelihood of a default.

But Papandreou is himself gambling. His campaign is a populist move intended to deflect the anger of the still-powerful Greek trade unions that once supported his party PASOK. But the Greek workers are having none of it.

In protest against the planned austerity measures, Greek tax and rubbish collectors walked off their jobs for a second day on Monday. The country's two main unions have urged more than a million civil servants and private sector workers to strike today. This second general strike in as many weeks is set to paralyse much of the country.

Meanwhile, in Portugal, similar plans sparked a strike by civil servants which shut schools, courts and hospitals on March 4 in actions supported by 80% of the membership. In its historic referendum, the population of Iceland has resoundingly rejected the terms for repaying the debt guarantees for Icesave depositors held by the British and Dutch governments.

Public and private sector employers across the world are responding to the recession by driving up productivity and cutting labour costs. As a two-day strike by 270,000 UK public sector workers over cuts in redundancy pay came to an end on Tuesday, the threat was growing of action over the Easter holiday by British Airways cabin crews over pay cuts, and rail maintenance workers and signallers over job reductions and changes to working conditions.

In the United States, the economic shakeout is driving the rate of exploitation to record levels. Official figures show that in 2009, productivity rose 3.8% from 2008, while unit labour costs fell 1.7%, a record pace of contraction. There are surely limits to what American workers can stand. Trouble is brewing already at American Airlines.

Everyday brings new shocks that surprise and disappoint those who search for signs of recovery. The UK’s declining exports and widening trade deficit despite a 25% decline in the relative value of the pound, are just the latest in a long line of figures that lead it inexorably to join the sovereign debt crisis on the way to full-blown state bankruptcy. No wonder Gordon Brown today admitted that there were “substantial risks ahead” for the economy.

The financial markets are relying on New Labour and/or the Tories to deal with the public spending deficit at the expense of ordinary people. Brown’s denials on this subject should be taken with a pinch of salt. Capitalism is cornered in country after country and is fighting back the only way it knows how. The increasing resistance by workers around the world has to point towards the strengthening of international alliances on the road to putting capital out of business once and for all.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Taking the knife to the NHS

The future fate of public services, whoever comes out on top in the general election, is already taking shape in the National Health Service. Cuts thinly disguised as “efficiency savings” are biting already but they are only the prelude to major reductions in spending and the provision of healthcare.

What’s actually happening now is typified by the situation in Basingstoke, where the hospital has already having to cut £6 million, or about 4% of its budget. Alex Whitfield, the associate director of productivity at the hospital NHS trust, admitted: “The financial situation is like nothing we have seen before. We have never had less money than the year before. We have a mountain to climb – it is huge.”

Cost-cutting projects include sending matrons back on occasional ward duty and using prescribed drugs left unused by discharged patients. Ultimately, Whitfield admitted, staff numbers will have to be reduced. Basingstoke’s problems flow from the decision by Sir David Nicholson, head of the NHS, to save £20 billion in three years in response to government pressure. Some estimates suggest that a third of hospitals will run out of money by the autumn of 2011, which New Labour is keen to disguise as the election date looms.

The crisis is already hitting primary care trusts, which “commission” operations and services from hospitals. A recent survey showed they are overspent by £130 million this year and will have to reduce spending in 2010-11 as a result. The funding gap has already had an impact on patients, with GPs in Hertfordshire being told to get "approval" for a list of procedures including hysterectomies, removal of "skin lumps and bumps" and tooth extraction. Managers have advised the family doctors that in many cases "it is usually better to wait to see if symptoms resolve themselves".

In London, campaigners say spending cuts being drawn up in secret threaten services such as casualty and maternity units at 13 out of 36 hospitals in the capital. A recent analysis by the British Medical Association warned: “This survey of London’s NHS raises serious questions about the long term viability of many of the capital’s acute hospitals in a complex and contradictory market. For the hospitals, the challenge is to juggle a whole series of pressures in the context of a frozen – but in real terms reducing – budget.”

Naturally, the plans are being kept under wraps as far as possible until after the election, although local campaigns are already under way. Some New Labour ministers have felt compelled to support protests as they seek to defend their seats. David Lammy, the Higher Education minister, for example, was on a recent march to save the Whittington Hospital casualty department in north London threatened by his own government’s policies! Hypocrisy or what?

Even before the cuts, health inequality is rising, with life expectancy for poorer households on average seven years lower than those on higher incomes, according to a recent report which declared: “In England, the many people who are currently dying prematurely each year as a result of health inequalities would otherwise have enjoyed, in total, between 1.3 and 2.5 million extra years of life.”

Halting the cuts in NHS spending and in other areas is urgent if these inequalities are not to grow even sharper. As a start we should reject the idea advocated by all the major parties that the national budget has to be “balanced” to appease financial markets. The markets cannot be allowed to blackmail society and should be told where to get off. And the same should apply to New Labour and the others as we get down to devising some serious revolutionary solutions.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Monday, March 08, 2010

Tolstoy still an 'enemy of the state'

You would think that the centenary of the death of Leo Tolstoy, widely regarded as among the greatest of novelists, would be celebrated in the country of his birth. You would be wrong, however. He is actually considered an embarrassment. That’s how bad things are in Russia today.

When Dmitry Medvedev came to power as president in 2008, he was painted as a less authoritarian leader than his predecessor Vladimir Putin who is now prime minister. But increasingly it is clear that on his watch, state-sponsored terrorism against those who challenge government appointees and the rule of the super-rich is continuing with a vengeance.

We are not talking only about contract killings against journalists and human rights activists and the continuing military occupation of Chechnya, but the atmosphere of repression against anyone considered “unpatriotic”. The tyranny of the state goes hand in hand with the unfettered influence of the deeply reactionary Russian Orthodox Church and a largely corrupt legal system.

Writers and film-makers who depict the country and its history from an anything others than a glorifying point of view are frowned upon. A recent movie – a new feature film by Aleksander Buravsky about the famous 900-day siege of Leningrad in World War II – was denounced because it showed Stalin’s secret police tracking down a dissident policewoman while the city starved.

As for Tolstoy, author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, he is persona non grata in official circles. Tolstoy, whose last years are depicted in the Oscar-nominated The Last Station starring Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer, died 100 years ago. His centenary is being marked around the world but not officially in Russia.

This is because Tolstoy was excommunicated by the orthodox church in 1901 due to his anti-state views. He was an aristocratic Christian anarchist who championed the poor peasantry. He was opposed to war and believed in non-violent resistance. Tolstoy defied the Tsarist state in circulating anarchist writings in the later years of his life.

The Russian church still runs a vendetta against him in a ferocious defence of its terrain. Last September, a court in the southern Russian district of Rostov, quoted Tolstoy’s denunciation of the church as “extremist material” in a case against a group of Jehovah’s witnesses. Clearly Tolstoy still remains an enemy of the state and church.

Those who try to expose the police and the security services risk being silenced by thugs. When a detective called Major Alexei Dymovsky went public on YouTube to denounced police corruption in the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk, he was sacked and jailed. A human rights campaigner who tried to defend him was attacked brutally.

British international human rights lawyer Bill Bowring maintains that the legal system in Russia is subservient to those at the top of the political tree. A recent report commissioned by a body overseen by Medvedev himself revealed that cases decided in accordance with the law, but not in the interests of officials, will be overturned on appeal and returned for further consideration. Judges whose decisions are overturned too frequently are soon dismissed.

Convictions predominate and there is a fear of acquitting, according to the report. The rate of acquittal in non-jury cases is 1%. The report says that “the most important factor in the work of the judges is fear and dependence on the chairman of the court”. A former Deputy chair of the Constitutional Court, Tamara Morshchakova, has pointed out that if a judge seeks to oppose other state powers, she is simply “eaten up”.

Tolstoy’s opposition to such a judiciary and such a state is as relevant today as it was in the years running up to the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917. He could have been writing about 2010 when he remarked that “there could not be worse violence than that of authority under existing conditions”.

Corinna Lotz

A World to Win secretary

Friday, March 05, 2010

'Rage on the right' threatens Washington

As the Obama administration struggles to get its extremely modest health care bill through Congress, it faces not just a hostile Republican Party that has effectively opted out of the usual bipartisan politics on Capitol Hill, but the menace of far right-wing groups that have found a new lease of life across America.

Their surfacing reflects frustration not just at the political impasse in Washington but the collapse of economic activity in many areas, alongside the phenomenal rate of home repossessions by banks and mortgage companies that recall the hungry days of the 1930s Great Depression.

Undoubtedly, the re-emergence of so-called Patriot Groups – armed militias that see the US government as a threat to civilisation and the “American way of life” (which are not necessarily the same thing) – can also be seen as a response to the extremely aggressive stance taken by the Republican Party against the first African-American president.

Republicans and their supporters in the media like Fox News have routinely denounced Obama as a non-patriotic, possibly even non-American, who is introducing socialist measures that threaten society. Resistance to a health care bill that relies on insurance companies led to Obama losing his two-thirds majority in the Senate at a by-election.

Now he is relying on a simple majority to get the legislation passed by the middle of this month and the fury has gone way beyond the control of the Republican Party.

The Southern Law Poverty Centre (SLPC), one of the most significant civil rights organisations in the country, says in a new report that “the radical right caught fire last year”, adding:

“Hate groups stayed at record levels — almost 1,000 — despite the total collapse of the second largest neo-Nazi group in America. Furious anti-immigrant vigilante groups soared by nearly 80%, adding some 136 new groups during 2009. And, most remarkably of all, so-called "Patriot" groups — militias and other organisations that see the federal government as part of a plot to impose ‘one-world government’ on liberty-loving Americans — came roaring back after years out of the limelight.

The report called “Rage on the Right” is in no doubt that what it calls “seething anger” has its roots in demographic changes to the population, “soaring public debt and the terrible economy, the bailouts of bankers and other elites, and an array of initiatives by the relatively liberal Obama Administration”.

The spectrum includes the "Tea Parties" and similar groups that have sprung up in recent months. These are populist organisations championed by people like Sarah Palin, herself ostracised by the Republican establishment after her failure as a vice-presidential candidate in 2008. With a predominantly middle-class membership, Tea Parties have won support by denouncing bank bail-outs, for example. The SLPC says that they “cannot fairly be considered extremist groups, but they are shot through with rich veins of radical ideas, conspiracy theories and racism”, adding:

“Sixty-one percent of Americans believe the country is in decline, according to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Just a quarter think the government can be trusted. And the anti-tax tea party movement is viewed in much more positive terms than either the Democratic or Republican parties, the poll found.”

The malaise deep in the heart of the American political system is paralleled by the more passive – so far – rejection of traditional politics in Britain, where only 54% say they are certain to vote at the upcoming general election, according to a new survey. Allowing the far right to make the running is impermissible. Developing revolutionary that solutions that enhance democracy in new ways, placing power in the hands of ordinary people has to take centre stage.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Tar sands: not ‘dirty oil’ but ‘bloody oil’

A new report produced by the campaigning organisation Platform reveals the extent of global banks’ funding for the world’s most polluting activity. And RBS, which is 84% owned by the UK public, is the biggest lender.

The campaign to stop RBS and the Royal Bank of Canada from funding the extraction of oil from tar sands in Alberta was stepped up this week with protests in London and Toronto. The Platform report explains how tar sands extraction is devastating Indigenous communities, wildlife and vast areas of boreal forests, as well as being many times more carbon-intensive to produce than “conventional” oil.

“The higher oil prices in recent years have meant that it’s become a more attractive prospect for oil companies to expand their operations in the costly process of obtaining and processing the thick bitumen into a usable form. It’s estimated that the industry is looking for a capital investment of $120-$220 billion over the next 20 years to build the new pipelines, mines, refineries and upgraders that are necessary to sustain the boom,” says campaigner Kevin Smith.

In fact, the banks have blood on their hands, says George Poitras, of the Mikisew Cree First Nation: “We are seeing a terrifyingly high rate of cancer in Fort Chipewyan where I live. We are convinced that these cancers are linked to the Tar Sands development on our doorstep. It is shortening our lives. That's why we no longer call it 'dirty oil' but 'bloody oil.”

The report scrutinises Investments of 26 banks from across the world, including Barclays, RBS and HSBC – both their direct lending to companies involved in tar sand extraction and to others involved indirectly, for example, in transporting the oil.

Platform, and other organisations, are mounting a further legal challenge to the UK Treasury, insisting that the government could and should make RBS halt this investment. When first hauled into court last year, the Treasury claimed that any such restriction would be interference in RBS’ profitability, and that it would be inappropriate for ministers to impose wider policy objectives on RBS.

But the campaign disputes this standpoint and says that the government could issue some instructions if it wanted to. After all, tar sands extraction runs entirely counter to the government’s own stated policies on sustainable energy and carbon reduction.

What this case underlines is the extent to which the corporations, and their financial backers, are the driving force of climate change and that they are not going to change now.

RBS had losses of £3.6bn in 2009, but the losses were lower than expected. There is no doubt that all the banks will continue to pursue any potentially profitable investment, and for them fossil fuels are one of the routes back to improved balance sheets. Another example is that of Chase Manhattan, under attack for funding the most environmentally-damaging open cast coal mining in the US.

Green campaigners sometimes speak about ending “our addiction to fossil fuels”. In the case of individuals this is a misleading characterisation – we are not addicted to fossil fuels, we are force fed them in a million different ways.

But in the case of the banks, it is spot on – though it might be more accurate to say they are addicted to profit. Faced with the options of making a fast buck from investing in proven, but polluting, technology or investing in cutting-edge sustainable technology that may not deliver profits in the short term – you know what decision the banks are going to make.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The fault lies within the system itself

The recall of fault-ridden products, which is spreading throughout industrial manufacturing, tells us much about the acute contradictions that permeate the global corporations within the capitalist drive to maximise profits.

Yesterday Nissan announced a recall of just over half a million vehicles, mostly in the US, because of problems with brake pedals and fuel gauges. Toyota leads the field with 8.5 million cars, trucks and sports utility vehicles recalled in the last few months. Toyota’s recalls are for faulty accelerator pedals, jamming floor mats, and braking problems. The pedals are supplied by CTS a US corporation.

General Motors has blamed the supplier JTEKT, a joint venture between Toyoda Machine Works and Koyo Seiko with five manufacturing plants in the US, for a faulty car part that led to the recall of 1.3m Chevrolet and Pontiac cars in North America. The fault in the cars’ power steering has been linked with 14 crashes. Last month Honda recalled 438,000 cars with faulty airbags.

The problem isn’t restricted to cars. On Monday, Sony told millions of PlayStation 3 users not to use their games consoles as it rushed to fix a bug. The warning appeared to be another blow to one of the biggest names in the electronics industry.

Last week Akio Toyoda, the Toyota chief executive whose family name appears on every one of the company’s products, appeared before the US House of Representatives Oversight Committee to explain and apologise. His simple explanation gets right to the heart of the problem. “I fear the pace at which we have grown may have been too quick,” he said.

Though it didn’t come out in the questioning, unpicking Toyoda’s simple statement gets us to the real cause of the crisis which has engulfed the interdependent worlds of finance and production. After World War II, US occupation forces introduced modern production control methods into Japan. These had been developed by it’s the US War Department.

Toyota adopted these as the basis for its development of the “kaizen” philosophy of continuous improvement. Kaizen is a process that, when done correctly, humanises the workplace, eliminates overly hard work ("muri"), teaches people how to perform experiments on their work using scientific methods and how to learn to spot and eliminate waste in business processes.

And it worked. Over the decades, Toyota grew to lead the world in quality, building cars with a reputation for durability and reliability. Other companies followed Toyota in their competition over quality and price.

So what went wrong? Akio Toyoda’s simple statement encompasses the consequences of decades of the fierce competition for profit which obliged Toyota, like all corporations, to globalise, to export production volumes to cheaper labour regions to cut costs. At the same time, the company led built highly-sophisticated vehicles dependent on ever more complex software and computer chips.

In the process it was obliged to outsource production of its components to companies over which it has little control, whilst all the time driving up productivity at a faster rate than its competitors. In the end, the complex, globalised supply chain was Toyota’s undoing and it engaged in a cover-up of mounting problems.

Toyota’s rush to expand simply added to a global saturation of the market, which is another inescapable feature of the capitalist system of production, one which is driving the present recession towards outright slump. Car sales are dropping off the cliff. In Europe they are expected to fall by 10-15% this year. GM is cutting European production by 20%. Europe has a production overcapacity of 6.5m vehicles.

The whole saga demonstrates beyond all argument that capitalism is simply not sustainable. Intense competition has meant the building of cars that are increasingly unsafe to drive, that add to carbon emissions and then lead to over-production with the consequent loss of jobs and pensions.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Walking blindfold over the precipice

The title of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ novel, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, seems to sum up what is happening at British universities and in the wider world, as cuts in funding for the arts takes its toll.

Prominent cultural and academic figures have expressed their fears about the impact of government spending cuts on universities. “The challenges facing the country and the world cannot be addressed without the arts and humanities,” they say. “Subjects such as literature, philosophy and history teach students to look at the world from a different perspective, to challenge ideas and communicate effectively, to bring the flexibility and imagination that employers need and welcome.”

New Labour has different ideas, however, evidenced by the fact that £600 million cuts in university spending were announced by the Business Secretary, Lord Mandelson. He wants much closer relationships between universities and business, switching resources from arts and humanities. For example, London’s art colleges have had a 35% cut in research resources because they are not deemed to contribute as much to the economy as, say, science subjects.

Luminaries who have joined the fray in The Observer include Geoffrey Crossick of London’s Goldsmiths College, the University of the Arts; Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery; Rick Trainor, principal, King's College London; Sir Nicholas Kenyon, managing director, the Barbican; Sandy Nairne, director of the National Portrait Gallery and other top university and arts leaders. Protests have begun. Students at the University of Sussex have launched weekly protests and a Facebook protest is active against cuts at King’s College, London.

There are other serious straws in the wind. The Northcott Theatre in Exeter has gone into administration and there is a major crisis at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London. The ICA has played a pioneering role since its formation by in 1947 but is now struggling on an operating deficit of around £1m. The Arts Council is not committing itself to a bail-out. One third of the 78 full-time and 32 part-time jobs are expected to be slashed.

Although its predicament is not directly attributable to cuts, the ICA’s fundraising efforts have reflected the effects of the recession – and the turn away from cutting edge, experimental arts programming. The ICA’s crisis is symptomatic of how cuts and censorship go together. There have recently been significant programming shifts by top institutions like the National Gallery towards a much more artistically conservative direction. Meanwhile safe blockbusters are used to generate income with huge admission fees.

Perhaps the biggest shock has come in Canada, where the Winter Olympics have just closed. After spending untold millions on the Games, British Columbia is cutting public spending on the arts by 88%, to the shock and horror of its practitioners. One playwright, Mark Leiren-Young says: “That’s not belt-tightening – that’s premeditated murder by strangulation.”

Writer Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaiden’s Tale and Year of the Flood, has noted that hostility to the arts has a sinister subtext: censorship and “control over the story through the annihilation of the story tellers”.

The Observer letter writers appeal for arts and humanities spending by citing potential economic benefits for employers and the economy. This is walking blindfold over the precipice. If the arts can only be defended on a utilitarian basis, then we are truly doomed.

As Atwood argues, art and culture is part of human evolution itself. The question is what is education and the making of art for? Is it for society as a whole or is it only alright if it can contribute corporate profits? New Labour’s has made its choice. We have to make ours.

Corinna Lotz

A World to Win secretary