Friday, August 20, 2010

650,000 words later...

In the four years since A World to Win launched its weekday news blog, we have written over 1,000 of them – that is somewhere in the region of 650,000 words! Now the blog team is going on annual holiday.

Our posts have focused on politics and the state, on ecology and economy, tracking the credit crunch (actually, predicting it!) and charting the growing ecological crisis. We’ve used over 1,600 labels (they are all indexed here to help identify the different subjects).

But it hasn’t been all serious stuff. This year’s April Fool blog raised an ironic laugh: “It’s a no-brainer,” said energy and climate change minister Ed Miliband. “The planet is under threat – people are facing actual death as a result of climate change, human society will not be able to survive the disruption and misery – what else can we do but act, and act now.”

Then there was the unofficial communiqué from last year’s G20 in London, which declared: “We will do whatever it takes to rebuild the balance sheets of the banks and to restore people’s confidence in a system that has come off the rails and is unfortunately and mistakenly despised by increasing numbers of our citizens.”

We’ve written about events in Palestine, Lebanon, Thailand, Africa, India, Pakistan, China, Kenya, Nigeria and Ogoniland, Sri Lanka and the struggle of the Tamils, about the United States, Greece – and many other countries where people are struggling for their rights.

The team has provoked discussion about youth unemployment, the privatisation of education and the brutality of the youth prison system and urged the decriminalisation of drug use.

AWTW was first out of the blocks analysing the ConDem coalition, recognising it as a government of crisis, with fundamental weaknesses as well as a vicious streak. We have been clear that whilst ideology has a role, it is capitalism’s profound and growing economic crisis that is driving the attacks on public spending.

But we don’t want our readers to be bored while the blog team takes a well-earned rest. So here are three things you could do in the time you normally spend reading the blog:

  1. Consider the case for People’s Assemblies. On the website is a new explanation of how these can go beyond resistance and become a focus for struggle for a democratic society based on co-operation and self-determination instead of profit and corporate power.
  2. Read the Manifesto of Revolutionary Solutions, produced this year. It is a living document that can be continuously updated and amended – so tell us what you think.
  3. Think about joining A World to Win.
Being a loyal reader of blogs is one thing, but we need you if we are to grow an organisation that is not just about protest and resistance, but has a positive revolutionary perspective.Without that, neither the political, the economic nor the ecological crises can be stopped in their tracks and turned around.

When we return, you can be sure the analysis of the global crisis and its impact in Britain will be fresher than ever!

Blog editorial team
August 20, 2010

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Pakistan's misery made worse by political failure

The Pakistan floods underline the impossibility of dealing separately with the three interconnected and interdependent ecological, financial and political crises now affecting every country.

Climate change is obviously implicated in the tremendous levels of rainfall, but the impact of the floods has been exacerbated by economic and political failure and corruption at local and national level.

A study conducted by the Pakistan Forest Institute reported on Al Jazeera shows a 0.85°C increase in temperatures in Peshawar between 1985 and 2009 - an increase of 0.034°C each year.

The seasons have changed, with spring starting 15.6 days earlier and becoming 17.8 days shorter. The extreme summer season, with a mean maximum temperature of 35°C, has grown longer, running for five months, from May to September.

There was a 30 per cent decrease in rainfall, with a shift towards a dry tropical climate where for eight months of the year less than 25mm of rain fell. This year’s unprecedented monsoon rains are a further indicator of climate change, according to Bashir Khan, the director-general of the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency.

The people in the Swat Valley have been most cruelly hit. Last year the Pakistan army, urged on by the Obama administration, launched a punitive assault on the Taliban, who were getting above themselves in the area, and hundreds of thousands of civilians were forced to flee.

They returned in recent months, only to have the floods and timber wreck more than 50 villages completely. Many people have died, and will die as they are cut off from aid, medicine and clean water. The government has failed to show as much vigour mobilising the army to get aid to the area now.

The Taliban were working with, or indeed WERE the “timber mafia” in the Malakand region where they were allowed to stay in control from 2007 to 2009. During that time more than 70 per cent of forests were cut down, contribuing the present disaster.

But everywhere, local politicians, police and military are either powerless to stop the loggers and big landowners, or are in their pay – or both. Bribery, corruption, and complicity with terror go hand-in-hand to undermine any environmental protection.

The loss of forests transforms even a normal monsoon from a benefit to a curse. Forests absorbs water, and help refill aquifers. Without trees, flash floods run off into rivers, with no benefit for next year’s crops and without replenishing wells and springs. Fertile top soil is washed away.

Controlling illegal logging and promoting reforestation are G8 Millennium Goal priorities, yet the regulatory regime fails to prevent illegally logged timber being laundered into the official world market. A report published by Chatham House in 2002 warned that regulation of the trade was problematic as it might be subject to challenge at the World Trade Organisation.

The promise of Pakistan independence has been realised only for the rich. In a country which invests vast resources in nuclear weapons to sustain a nationalist, sectarian dispute with India, almost half the population are getting by on just one meal a day according to the United Nations.

Pakistan’s failed state system, exempified by the huge wealth amassed by the president Asif Ali Zardari, with his banks accounts and properties in a number of countries, cannot deliver rights, food and ecological protection. The same state and security services works hand in glove with the reactionary madrasas and the Taliban, when it suits both parties. It cannot be reformed to serve ordinary people’s interests.

The way forward must be to develop a new kind of revolutionary organisation to represent the interests of the masses, replacing those like the Pakistan People’s Party who merely manipulate them to gain power. A new organisation will have to think globally, becoming part of an international movement, and act locally and to put ordinary people in control of their own lives, their local economies and ecology.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A price to pay for China's leap forward

The continued expansion of China’s economy has enabled it to become the world’s second largest generator of new value, overtaking Japan. If current trends continue it would overtake the United States by 2020. But the strains – social and political – are taking their toll.

Though now slowing, China’s spectacular economic growth has continued despite the global recession, shored up by a massive injection of government spending. It now exports more than Germany. As some of its population benefits, it has become the world’s biggest market for cars.

China has invested in huge infrastructure projects. It has been able to use the vast reserves of foreign exchange accumulated from its exports, and is eyeing up the 49.5 trillion yuan ($7.3 trillion) corporations and households have saved during the 30 years in which globalising transnational companies transferred production there.

The distribution of wealth between the workers who produce all the value and the profits extracted from it by corporations has followed the pattern of worsening inequity in the rest of the world. Between 1983 and 2005, the proportion of China’s wealth comprised of wages and salaries fell from 56.5 per cent of GDP to 36.7 per cent.

During the latter part of the twentieth century, changing conditions set in motion by the Communist Party forced millions of former peasants from their villages and the land and into the factory production zones set up to attract inward investment. The proportion of city dwellers rose from 17.8 per cent of the population in 1978 to 45.7 per cent in 2008. Migrants to the cities don’t get residential status, so are paid less and get worse healthcare, social welfare and education benefits. By 2025, at least 220 Chinese cities will be likely to have more than one million people.

Until now, China has kept tight control over its national finances, whilst the majority of countries in the rest of the world have become subject to the demands of capital markets. But things are changing. Whilst shifting some of its risky investment support from the US, it too has fallen prey to the demands of finance capital.

Yesterday, the People’s Bank of China announced that overseas financial institutions will be allowed to invest yuan (the currency also known as the renminbi, or RMB) holdings in the nation’s interbank bond market in a pilot program to spur currency flows from abroad. Shanghai, China’s commercial hub, is striving to become a global financial centre by 2020 and is expanding investment products which would get access to the nation’s huge savings. China may allow foreign companies to sell stock in Shanghai next year.

China is certainly experiencing some hammer blows as the result of its conversion to capitalist production. Its rivers and cities are amongst the most polluted in the world. Recent landslips from heavy rains are much more serious as the result of deforestation.

The population has fallen prey to the tobacco companies, heavily marketing their death-dealing product in China, to offset shrinking markets in the West. According to the World Health Organisation, more than 300 million, mostly men, are now smoking heavily and 1 million a year are dying prematurely as a result.

The concentration of the workforce in manufacturing zones has created conditions for an organised response to poor working conditions and low wages. Strikes in factories operated by Honda and other global producers are becoming much more frequent and the authoritarian Communist Party bureaucracy is strengthening its internal security, harassing and locking up dissidents, as well as censoring internet access. It is a political system under massive strain which is certain to fracture in the coming period.

At the same time, the uneven development of capitalism, with many of the major economies, including the United States, now reduced to debtor status and increasingly dependent on Chinese financial support, is bound to increase the prospect of a global trade war with all that can lead to.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The disaster that is the 'war on drugs'

When the outgoing president of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), Sir Ian Gilmore, calls for an end to the state’s prohibition of drug use, acknowledging that the policy has failed abysmally, you can guess what the official reaction will be.

So no prizes for those who thought that a spokesperson for the Home Office would say: "Drugs such as heroin, cocaine and cannabis are extremely harmful and can cause misery to communities across the country. The government does not believe that decriminalisation is the right approach.” That’s been the line for 40 years since doctors were banned from prescribing heroin to patients under laws passed by the Labour government of 1966-70.

Farewell emails are more often than not best forgotten. But Sir Ian’s missive to the 25,000 members of the august RCP certainly wasn’t. He told them: “I personally back the chairman of the UK Bar Council, Nicholas Green QC, when he calls for drug laws to be reconsidered with a view to decriminalising illicit drugs use. This could drastically reduce crime and improve health."

He endorsed a recent article in the British Medical Journal by Stephen Rolles, from the think tank Transform Drug Policy Foundation. This demonstrated in a comprehensive and conclusive way that the policy of prohibition had harmed public health, encouraged organised crime and fuelled corruption. It’s a conclusion reached by many official reports, including one by the Police Foundation as long ago as 1999.

And as last night’s Channel 4’s brilliant, eye-opening documentary, Birth of a narco-state, by Angus Macqueen, revealed, prohibition carried into foreign policy by the US and Britain has had a disastrous effect on Afghanistan. Attempts to prevent poor farmers growing poppies has helped create a state dominated by the drugs mafia at the very highest levels. Naturally, the Taleban also uses heroin smuggling to fund its cause. As a result, half of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product is from the drugs trade and bribery of state officials. About 90% of heroin on Britain’s streets is Afghan, smuggled into the country through Iran and Turkey.

Globalisation has created an international, large-scale business in drugs, which operates like any other industry. The market is highly competitive, which ensures that prices remain low and within reach of most sections in society. Between a third and a half of theft and burglary is estimated to be drug-related. The illegal drug market is estimated to be worth between £4bn and £6.6bn a year. As a report by the Royal Society of Arts acknowledged: “There is no reason to think that the illegal drugs business and its accompanying market can simply be closed down. Certainly all efforts so far to close them down have been dismal and often expensive failures.”

The sharp rise in the use of drugs in society is undoubtedly connected to increased levels of alienation produced by the intense, consumer-oriented society. The market economy depends to a greater extent on low-wage, flexible labour and destroys more skilled jobs than it creates. Many working-class communities are deprived of job opportunities that are both sustainable and meaningful. These deep structural inequalities are, of course, insoluble as far as capitalism is concerned.

In his BMJ article, Rolles calls for regulation in place of prohibition and says it would be far cheaper than the ever increasing resources currently directed into efforts to control supply. But a huge state apparatus has grown up around the “war on drugs”, both domestic and military. Its perpetuation serves to sustain a draconian control over sections of society, especially young people, to the point where it has become self-justifying. Getting off the drugs merry-go-round and abandoning prohibition, will require a real dose of democracy that takes us beyond the present state of affairs.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

Monday, August 16, 2010

Petraeus deepens Obama's problems

Only a month after taking charge of US troops in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, commander of US and NATO forces, has openly challenged President Obama. Coming amidst increasing political turmoil, it is a dangerous moment for his presidency.

In an NBC television interview, Petraeus said that Obama’s 2011 target date for withdrawal was dependent on conditions permitting. The general’s open defiance comes as the US occupation is suffering its the highest level of casualties since it invaded Afghanistan in 2001.

But it is not only the Afghan people and the US troops killed on the battlefield or on the roads of Afghanistan who are bearing the brunt of the war. When combat troops return home, increasing numbers cannot cope with the psychological after-effects of seeing the carnage inflicted not only by the Taliban but by their own side.

In descriptions of mental trauma reminiscent of the long-term effects on US veterans from the Vietnam war, Time reporter Mark Thompson says that the US army faces a “third front” – trying to rescue its own soldiers from insanity. Soldiers are seeking mental health support more than 100,000 times a month.

One in every 10 soldiers who has completed a single combat deployment has a mental ailment, Thompson has found. The rate rises each time a soldier is redeployed. “More than 500,000 troops have returned home to the US in the last decade with a mental illness,” Thompson estimates.

The result is that suicide rates in the army have been rising. Despite a $7 million expenditure on hi-tech facilities like Fort Campbell, near Nashville, Kentucky, home to the 101st Airborne Division, suicides there have continued to rise.

Not only do they suffer mental breakdowns, but soldiers - and even more significantly – their carers, have turned their weapons on themselves and their superiors. Last November, after a killing spree at the Fort Hood military facility in Texas, Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Hasan was accused of killing 13 people. Hasan, who received medals for service in the Gulf war, had specialist training in the treating traumatic stress at the US armed forces University of the Health Sciences.

But the physical and psychological fall-out amongst his troops, will not deter Petraeus who shows typical disdain for the poor bloody infantry who do the dirty work, and pay the price, while the generals screw up on a consistent basis. Speaking in his Kabul headquarters, he said that he would resist any large-scale or rapid withdrawal of American forces.

Petraeus let the cat out of the bag about the real reason for the continuing US-UK occupation of Afghanistan. He said the country had the potential to become a "new Silk Road", a crossroads for trade, especially in minerals: "Afghanistan is blessed with the presence of what are... trillions of dollars' worth of minerals”.

Behind Petraeus stands the military-industrial complex – the US and global corporations anxious to exploit the lithium and oil resources. The oil corporations’ appetites will have been whetted by an announcement by the Karzai regime that a survey has found a rich new oil field in the north of the country.

The military top brass are deepening the crisis for Obama, whose approval ratings continue to slide. In advance of the November mid-term elections, around half the country disapproves strongly of the government.

Obama appointed Petraeus after sacking Commander General Stanley McChrystal in June. This was after McChrystal had openly attacked the administration in an interview published by Rolling Stone magazine. To have one general defy your government may be regarded as a misfortune; but to have two in quick succession ready to counter the commander-in-chief in public looks like carelessness.

To have all this happen while the US economy continues to tank and a series of rabid right-wingers in and around the notorious Tea Party challenge the authority of the state itself, might be considered to be a dangerous cocktail.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

Friday, August 13, 2010

Public money - private profiteering

As NHS hospitals struggle to make £20 billion in cuts imposed under the previous New Labour government’s spending plans, a select group of large building contractors and developers will be smiling all the way to the bank.

Wards will close, operations cancelled and staff laid off to balance the books by hospital trusts that have new or modernised buildings. These were built under the so-called Private Finance Initiative (PFI).

New Labour championed PFI as a way to get new hospitals, schools and houses built without direct public spending on the projects. Instead, under PFI the private sector builds the schemes and the public sector leases them back over 30-40 years, effectively taking out an extremely long and costly mortgage.

Over 100 hospital schemes have been built at a value of £11.3 billion. The trouble is that the final bill works out at six times that figure at £65bn. And some NHS trusts are making annual repayments of more than 10% of their turnover, according to figures obtained by the BBC.

The case of the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary is particularly notorious. NHS Lothian will be a tenant for another 40 years. By then the total paid for a hospital which cost £190m to open in 2003 will have topped a staggering £2.4 billion.

The thing is, however, that if hospitals aren’t able to make the payments, the government will step in because ultimately these are state-backed contracts and will always be honoured. So the contractors can sleep happily in their beds, enjoying a guaranteed income stream, while the sick suffer.

Dr Mark Porter, of the British Medical Association, added: "Locking the NHS into long-term contracts with the private sector has made entire local health economies more vulnerable to changing conditions. Now the financial crisis has changed conditions beyond recognition, so trusts tied into PFI deals have even less freedom to make business decisions that protect services, making cuts and closures more likely."

And it’s not as if PFI contracts are good value for money. Public finance expert Allyson Pollock believes the bidding process is almost certainly rigged. One third of PFI projects attracted two bidders or fewer between 2004 and 2006 mainly because of lack of bidder interest. “PFI schemes are characterised by a small number of very large firms competing for contracts; very few firms have the economies of scale and financial muscle to lever in funds, while the high bidding costs and tendering periods act as serious disincentives. In several cases there has only been one bidder.”

Research shows how PFI hospitals on average almost double in costs, with significant changes to the design and specification, between the start and finish of the process.
At University College London Hospital, the costs of the PFI project increased from £120m to £430m in the three-year period prior to signing off. Fewer beds and facilities than originally planned was one result.

It’s a similar story with local authority housing modernisation schemes, according to a recent report. And in London, a variant of PFI has cost council taxpayers billions after a contractor literally went down the tube and others demanded higher payments. Gordon Brown was the architect of that particular disaster.

Contractors have also benefitted from refinancing deals at the expense of the taxpayer. In the Norfolk and Norwich hospital PFI scheme, refinancing increased the investors' rate of return from 16% to 60%. It’s a case of the private sector running rings round public officials who don’t have the expertise to cope with complicated refinancing deals.

This particular burden of debt is one but example of how society is oppressed by contractors, land owners and financial markets. Interest payments on the national debt this year alone will amount to more than £40 billion. That’s a straight transfer of wealth from taxpayer to profit bloodsuckers. It’s got to end sooner rather than later.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Poisoned legacy of nuclear option

Wildfires raging across Russia are spreading towards the highly contaminated forests of the Bryansk region, threatening to release low-dose nuclear radiation resulting from the Chernobyl disaster of almost 25 years ago.

The Russian government claims that only two fires have broken out in Bryansk and that they have been put out. However Greenpeace has published a map that suggests there are, or have been, more than 20 fires in the area.

The impact on health of low-dose nuclear radiation combined with smog generated by the fires, plus the horrific heat, which continues in Russia’s hottest summer since records began, is not easy to predict.

It’s a reminder of the long-term damage caused by the world’s worst nuclear accident, when in 1986 one of four nuclear reactors exploded at Chernobyl, spreading nuclear material right across Europe. Whole areas of Russia and Belarus are still no-go zones and high levels of birth defects and thyroid cancer have been identified.

The original concrete sarcophagus enclosing the exploded reactor is crumbling to dust, and a massive new steel structure is being constructed on site at an estimated cost of $1.4bn. It is hoped it will contain the radiation for 100 years.

At the same time, the ConDem government has published its annual energy strategy review, and whilst nuclear power warrants only a short paragraph, reading between the lines one can see that it is a key part of the coalition’s plans.

Indeed energy secretary Chris Huhne was quick to respond to an accusation in the Financial Times that the government was not pursuing the nuclear option and that “green dogma threatens to saddle it with the wrong energy policies”.

Former nuclear opponent Huhne promised the FT: “I have said clearly – most recently in the annual energy statement – that nuclear power will play a important part in our future energy mix, and that the government will continue with all the facilitating measures such as streamlined planning and the national policy statements.

“Moreover, nuclear power will benefit from the framework put in place to encourage low carbon electricity generation, such as the European Union’s emissions trading scheme and our own plans for a carbon price floor to provide greater investor certainty.” Huhne said that the industry would not receive public subsidies but that he was “confident that there will be new nuclear power as planned by 2018.”

What this actually means is that the government is not going to directly subsidise nuclear power, but is pushing to raise the floor for the European Union carbon price, so that new nuclear power stations are potentially profitable, not only in the UK but across Europe.

And with the planned closure of a number of coal-fired power stations, and a predicted shortfall in electricity generation in the UK in coming years, the nuclear option looks even better for shareholders.

This is the same Huhne who wrote in 2007: "Nuclear is a tried, tested and failed technology. New nuclear would be economically foolhardy, environmentally irresponsible and pose long-term security questions that are impossible to address.

"If we opt for a new generation of nuclear reactors, future generations may rue the day. We will be encumbering them with high costs and enormous and unknowable liabilities. We will miss a key opportunity to pioneer a green future." Quite!

Having entered the coalition, and accepted the logic of the continuation of the profit and growth-driven, privatised, energy industry, all Huhne’s former opposition to nuclear inevitably disappears. In the context of capitalist short-termism, nuclear can successfully masquerade as a low-carbon, “green”, option. Nuclear has certainly fooled a lot of people!

The issue of disposing of toxic nuclear waste will be fudged, and left as a problem for future generations to tackle, just as generations of Byelorussians and Russians continue to live with the poisoned inheritance of Chernobyl.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

US economy on the brink

The self-created mirage of recovery that helped sustain the tattered remnants of the American Dream evaporated yesterday as reality came calling.

The desperate measures taken to halt the imminent sacking of hundreds of thousands of public sector workers was only one event in a day of reckoning.

Five stark paragraphs comprising the statement issued by the Federal Reserve - America’s central bank - reeks of the stench of exhausted defeat. The first outlines the problem. It needs no interpretation:

Information received since … June indicates that the pace of recovery in output and employment has slowed in recent months. Household spending is increasing gradually, but remains constrained by high unemployment, modest income growth, lower housing wealth, and tight credit. Business spending on equipment and software is rising; however, investment in non-residential structures continues to be weak and employers remain reluctant to add to payrolls. Housing starts remain at a depressed level. Bank lending has continued to contract. Nonetheless, the Committee anticipates a gradual return to higher levels of resource utilization in a context of price stability, although the pace of economic recovery is likely to be more modest in the near term than had been anticipated.

In the action paragraphs, the committee explains that base interest rates will be kept at their historic low, but reiterates that “resource slack”, which means massive overcapacity in production, eliminates any hope of anything changing for years or decades to come.

In what is seen as a reversal of previous policy, the Fed is intent on printing even more money in a bid to stimulate the economy. It plans to use the income from repayments on mortgages it bought during the financial meltdown of 2008 to pump out more dollars.

If nothing else it gives a new meaning to recycling. Once the money has been captured from American families, the figures just keep moving around inside the Federal Reserve’s computers. Paul Ashworth of Capital Economics called the decision a "symbolic gesture".

Yesterday, Obama recalled the members of the House of Representatives back from their summer recess so that they could pass an emergency bill approving $26bn (£16.4bn) funds for states which have run out of money, and $16.1bn to extend funding for the Medicaid healthcare programme for low-income Americans.

Without the emergency aid, states would have laid off police, teachers and firefighters and all of the key services would have ceased functioning. The states themselves have suffered during the recession through a loss of revenue through sales and property taxes. The aid will only get them through the current financial year, however.

Those who claim that public spending is the answer to the economic crisis have had their fingers burnt by the US experience. Obama’s government has spent trillions in a various stimulus packages – all to no avail.

That’s because the crisis of capitalism is global and marked by the classic symptoms of over-production, over-capacity and falling demand. The boom was artificially fuelled by mountains of credit and debt which inevitably proved unsustainable and led to the implosion of the financial system. Without easy credit, consumers are in general spending what money they have on necessities like food and shelter.

It all adds up to the American economy being on the brink of collapse, adding to the sense of political crisis gathering around the Obama presidency.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Making money out of extreme weather

Capitalism has a genius for inventiveness that drives those who represent its interests to extraordinary feats of creativity. The more extreme the weather, the more money they can make.

Global temperatures in the first half of the year have been the highest since records began 130 years ago. Synchronised violent weather events are disrupting and consuming lives and displacing millions across the world from Pakistan through Russia to the USA.

The entire population of Moscow is struggling for breath and hundreds have already died as the city is engulfed in smoke from wildfires burning throughout vast areas of European Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. The long drought which turned the land to tinder has ruined crops on a huge scale while in Pakistan up to 14 million are affected by floods in one of the greatest disasters in history.

With mounting evidence of the effects of climate change adding up to a planetary emergency, post-Copenhagen talks have taken a step backward. The Obama administration has all but abandoned attempts to pass emissions limiting legislation because the additional costs on business might impact their chances in the November elections.

This is further proof that there can be no solution within the framework of capitalist society. Quite the opposite. Capitalists can and do find ways to overcome any barrier to profitable activity, irrespective of the lives they trample on the road to riches.

Reports say that commodity traders from Glencore International prompted the Russian government to ban exports of wheat, thereby boosting the already soaring world price of this critical foodstuff, denying access to the next meal for billions of people, but enabling the Swiss-based commodities corporation to increase its profits. The ban on exports meant that grain trader Glencore could cancel its contracts based on earlier, lower prices and make new deals exploiting the increase. The brilliance of the seriously sick at work.

Wheat isn’t the only globally-traded commodity which has seen prices rocketing in recent days. There’s a causal connection between the horse-has-bolted attempts to rescue the global financial system and the price of basic foods including barley and rice.

Joachim von Braun, former director-general of the International Food Policy Research Institute puts it like this:

There are increasing indications that some financial capital is shifting from speculation on housing and complex derivatives to commodities, including food. While the financial markets have recently been regulated to curb excessive speculation, commodity markets have remained largely untouched and are the open flank of the system attracting speculation. A food price crisis is not of great significance for the relatively rich. But for the bottom 3 billion it poses a nutrition disaster with appalling long-term health consequences. The number of undernourished people has increased against the backdrop of economic recession.

Another example of this deranged genius comes from the United States. The location is the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the home of the market in financial derivatives that, from the 1990s onwards, did so much to express and satisfy the mounting demand for credit throughout the late stages of the post-war economic expansion.

The mathematical wizards who invent money-spinners for the global gamblers have come up with a new futures market in “cooling degree days (CDDs)”. It works like this: in common with much of the rest of the northern hemisphere, the US is experiencing record temperatures. Demand for air conditioning has seen power consumption rise by 10%, boosting the profits of the power generators and suppliers. CDDs give a measure of demand derived from the degrees of air temperature in excess of 65oF (18.3oC) and speculators with money to burn gamble on what this number will be in a few months time.

By any standard these people are among the clinically insane. Capitalist exploitation of the planet and its people has to end, as a matter of extreme urgency, before we are dragged beyond the limits of the ecosystems’ ability to recover.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Monday, August 09, 2010

The strange case of the Irish mercenary in Santa Cruz

Tensions in Bolivia are reaching a high point. Unrest has shut down the city of Potosi in the south-east while president Evo Morales has used a press conference to denounce the United States for fostering tensions in the region with bases in Colombia.

At the weekend, Morales announced that the Bolivian army would offer free military training to civilians. Unfortunately for the president, his own party members are amongst the 30 hunger strikers who are supporting a general strike and road-blocking protests which have been going on for over 10 days in Potosi. Governor Felix Gonzales, who is amongst the strikers, is a member of the ruling Movement towards Socialism (MAS) party. They want Morales to travel to the city to negotiate a solution.

The Potosi Civic Committee are angry about boundary disputes with a neighbouring province. They want infrastructure projects and the preservation of the iconic Cerro Rico mountain, which is in danger of collapse. The siege has cut off rail and air links and cut the city off from the rest of the world.

It focuses attention on the difficulties facing one of Latin America’s poorest countries, which has a population of only nine million. In 2002 Bolivia ranked 104th out of a total of 174 countries in human development according a UN report. Since his re-election last December with an increased majority Morales has been treading a precarious balancing act.

His MAS party has continued to mobilise the poor indigenous people of Bolivia who form 80% of the population. The World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth held in the Bolivian town of Cochabamba last April encouraged a mass, democratic approach to ecological and social problems. MAS has also sought to develop a “just state” in which, as vice president Alvaro Garcia Linera put it, “indigenous communities and mestizos are included in a unified way”.

In seeking to develop Bolivia’s rich mining resources, including the world’s largest deposit of lithium under the Uyuni salt flats which are in the Potosi region, the government decreed in 2008 that the state would take full control of lithium exploitation.

Since taking office in 2006, the MAS government has nationalised the country’s power industries, including gas and electricity. Naturally this has brought Bolivia into conflict with those defending the interests of the global power corporations and those who defend the old status quo.

The strange case of an Irish mercenary, Michael O’Dwyer, reveals that there are indeed sinister machinations going on. O’Dwyer and two other men were killed last April during a shoot out with Bolivian police in Santa Cruz. Bolivian authorities claimed that O’Dwyer and two other men were involved in a plot to kill President Morales during 2009.

An investigation by journalists working for Irish television company RTE indicated that O’Dwyer was recruited by a right-wing Hungarian terrorist who wanted to overturn the Morales government. Paul Murphy and Oonagh Smyth’s report said that O’Dwyer’s paymaster was the Irish security company IRMS.

Other reports suggest that Dwyer was among seven men who had travelled from Ireland to Bolivia, supposedly for a bodyguard course. At least six and possibly all seven of these men had worked for IRMS, the company that provides security for Shell's controversial pipeline in Erris in Ireland. Up to the point of the announcement of Dwyer's death the IRMS website advertised its "special services" as including "international armed and unarmed security."

Shell to Sea, whose campaigners have been nearly killed by IRMS security thugs, is opposing oil giant Shell’s pipeline through Ireland. Fishermen and environmental campaigners say that IRMS was financed “to the tune of millions of dollars beyond the capacity of local business interests to raise alone” and traced the money back to oil and gas companies.

Opposing the interests of the power corporations is a dangerous business. But in the battle of David versus Goliath, there is no doubt where our sympathies lie.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win Secretary

Friday, August 06, 2010

The crisis and spending cuts: cause and effect

The Lib Dem-Tory government stands accused of making cuts in public spending that are purely “ideologically driven”, that are “unnecessary” and being carried through just to please their rich City friends.

In launching the Coalition of Resistance in The Guardian this week, former Labour cabinet minister Tony Benn wrote: “We reject these cuts as simply malicious ideological vandalism, hitting the most vulnerable the hardest.”

In the same spirit, writer and blogger Richard Seymour claims that “there is no urgent need to pay off Britain’s debts”, and that the cuts agenda was driven by big business interests. This view is shared by many trade union leaders.

If, as is suggested, the Coalition’s intentions are essentially “ideological” and not necessary, it follows that they can be stopped in their tracks and even reversed by a great deal of protest and systematic opposition.

After all, the cuts are but a policy decision taken by a right-wing government when there are other options available. Or so it is implied. So if sufficient pressure is applied, the Coalition might be persuaded to change course.

This is the first of several difficulties with this approach. It helps to foster the illusion that the Coalition could be for turning and that there are more rational, progressive options available.

Nor is it true that all sections of business support the cuts programme. There are at least 1 million private sector jobs that are dependent on public sector contracts who are already losing out, while the risk of plunging the economy deeper into recession are very real.

What is sidestepped and even ignored is the profound and deepening crisis of the capitalist system as a whole as the source of the cuts. In fact, the term “capitalism” isn’t used by Benn once in his otherwise forthright appeal to come together to fight the cuts.

The truth is that the budget crisis facing Britain is but one aspect of the great unravelling of decades of debt that sustained the global economy and the financial system.

Debt increased at every level, from consumers to companies to banks to whole countries. A survey by the McKinsey Global Institute found that average total debt (private and public sector combined) in ten mature economies rose from 200% of GDP in 1995 to 300% in 2008. In Iceland and Ireland, debt-to-GDP ratios reached 1,200% and 700% respectively.

In 2007, the bubble began to burst when poor Americans were unable to pay for their subprime mortgages. The following year, the global financial system went to the edge of collapse, plunging capitalist economies into a deep recession which is worsening.

Even The Economist had to acknowledge the connection. In a special edition on debt, the magazine acknowledged: “Hyman Minsky… argued that these debt crises were both inherent in the capitalist system and cyclical. Prosperous times encourage individuals and companies to take on more risk, meaning more debt. Initially such speculation is successful and encourages others to follow suit; eventually credit is extended to those who will be able to repay the debt only if asset prices keep rising (a succinct description of the subprime-lending boom). In the end the pyramid collapses.”

There is, therefore, a material cause-effect relationship between the crisis of the system as a whole and the mountains of debt that leave the British state having to find £40 billion a year in interest payments on government bonds. Attempts to buck financial markets failed in Greece, Ireland and Spain, which led all the major British parties to pledge substantial cuts during the election campaign

Capitalism has to drive down living standards to sustain the profit system and the cuts are part of this onslaught. We don’t need to try and find a substitute budget to help capitalism out of its problems. The challenge is to develop an alternative to capitalism itself and build a coalition of forces to challenge for state power through a network of People’s Assemblies.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Liberate science to tackle world hunger

Growing enough food to feed the world’s population is already achieved, though poor people often can’t access or afford it and rich countries waste as much as 30%.

The fact that population growth will peak in around 2050 means that it should be possible to produce sufficient food, provided there is a transformation to more sustainable farming and land use. And provided, of course, that there is a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions and global warming is capped and then reversed.

The scientific journal Nature, in a special issue on food and farming, concludes: “Producing enough food for the world's population in 2050 will be easy. But doing it at an acceptable cost to the planet will depend on research into everything from high-tech seeds to low-tech farming practices.” Nature calls for a “second green revolution” and says:

Such a revolution will require a wholesale realignment of priorities in agricultural research. There is an urgent need for new crop varieties that offer higher yields but use less water, fertilizers or other inputs — created, for example, through long-neglected research on modifying roots — and for crops that are more resistant to drought, heat, submersion and pests. Equally crucial is lower-tech research into basics such as crop rotation, mixed farming of animals and plants on smallholder farms, soil management and curbing waste. (Between one-quarter and one-third of the food produced worldwide is lost or spoiled.)

But the call for “a wholesale realignment of priorities in agricultural research” is a big demand. Public investment in agricultural research has collapsed and the only investors are profit-driven corporations like Monsanto and Du Pont. It is certainly not possible to feed the world with the current profit-driven, smash-and-grab approach of global agri-business.

Far from transforming the way land is used, transnationals are buying it up for intensive industrialised use. Even marginal land that will be entirely destroyed by two or three seasons of chemical-driven agriculture is being grabbed. Genetic modification in the hands of corporations continues to produce unforeseen outcomes that leave the profits of the transnationals intact but leave farmers duped – or forced – into planting GM seed – bankrupt.

The Chinese government is investing in research, but in a reckless and uncontrolled way. From “cloud-seeding” to GM seeds, China is carrying out a massive experiment on its land and people. It has emerged that companies that are part-owned by the state agriculture research institutes where the seeds were developed, have sold genetically modified rice seed to Chinese farming corporations. The relevant safety certificates were never issued.

The reality is that capitalism’s only response to this contemporary set of challenges has been a dramatic increase in market speculation in food and land. New investment funds are being established to profit from the global land grab, with Morgan Stanley to the fore.

And a further devastating price spike is on the horizon as thousands of hectares of grain crops in Punjab – Pakistan’s “bread basket” –have been swept away by the floods, whilst the wheat crop in Russia and Ukraine has been devastated by unprecedented drought. The UN has called for calm, as the world market price for wheat surged – by 7% on one day last week – on forecasts that 25m tonnes has been lost from the global harvest.

It is often said that people have lost confidence in science and its ability to make the world a better place. But it is the economic and political system within which science functions that is untrustworthy. Already thousands of scientists are working on responses to global warming, often in institutions that receive little or no funding.

Released from the need to focus on increased profits by their funding masters, science could contribute not only to feeding the world, but also to transforming agriculture into an activity that works in harmony with the evolutionary biology of plants and people.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

US and Pakistan military - a deadly embrace

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari’s current visit to Britain must be one of the most unfortunate ever by a head of state. He has rightly come under fire for lavish junketing while millions of his people are suffering from the worst floods for nearly a century.

In addition, Zardari’s meeting with Cameron behind closed doors this Friday is bedevilled by the Prime Minister’s remark that Pakistan should not be “allowed to look both ways” or be permitted to “promote the export of terror”. Cameron, who remains unrepentant, has himself been attacked by Tory grandee Lord Tebbit who has accused him of running “a sloppy, slap-happy government” a propos these remarks.

Just another spat between the old and new Tories? No, this runs far deeper. Cameron in fact provided a glimpse into the deadly embrace that is the reality of Pakistan’s relationship with the United States and Britain.

The heated exchanges between Cameron and Zardari come hot on the heels of the WikiLeaks Afghan War Diary affair. The 91,000 reports from US military units in the field, embassies, intelligence officers and informers have been denounced as fabrications by Hamid Gul, former chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.

An astonishing investigation by veteran reporter Christina Lamb in last weekend’s Sunday Times provides chapter and verse about the real nature of this sinister body. Lamb, who was twice expelled from Pakistan after pre-dawn raids on her, first in on her flat in Islamabad and later in Quetta, explains how and why Pakistan’s military intelligence has become the ultimate sorcerer’s apprentice and the ultimate nightmare for both the US and Britain.

As Lamb points out, the WikiLeaks documents show that “Pakistan has been accepting billions in US aid while ISI, its military intelligence service, had been arming and sheltering members of the Taliban. The man who headed ISI during the height of this activity was none other than Kayani.”

Kayani is none other than General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan’s army chief, who, Lamb says, is the “real power in the country”. She was present on Kayani’s C17 executive jet when he met with Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, just as the WikiLeaks Afghan war diary affair broke.

Mullen used the opportunity to denounce WikiLeaks. He tweeted from the aircraft: “Appalled by classified docs leak to WikliLeaks and decision to post. It changes nothing on Afghanistan strategy or our relationship w/Pakistan.”

It was, Lamb writes, Mullen’s 19th visit to Pakistan since 2007. The complexity of US-Pakistan relations goes back to the 1980s when the CIA provided billions of dollars of aid to the Afghan resistance movement fighting the Soviet army of occupation. These funds were channeled through the ISI, often to the anger of the mujaheddin fighters, many of whom who paid the ultimate price for the double-dealing ISI.

But the ISI’s activities were not confined to Afghanistan. They also targeted politicians, especially secular ones like former Prime Minister and opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. An official UN investigation into the Bhutto’s December 2007 assassination accuses the ISI of having an agent in the operating room where doctors tried to revive her. There is a body of evidence suggesting that the agency was responsible for terror bombings in Kabul and the Mumbai massacre during 2008.
Hundreds of thousands of people in the flood-stricken areas of Pakistan are dismayed by the lack of concern and help from their government. Reporters on the ground say that while the state has failed to act, Islamist organisations of all kinds, including Jamaat-ud-Dawa which is thought to be a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group blamed for the 2008 assault on Mumbai, have stepped into the breach.
But while Washington’s support for Pakistan’s military - £11 billion since 2001 – continues to provide succour to the very forces that are killing US troops, the US and NATO cannot withdraw their support. They view the collapse of Pakistan as a worse option than an out-of-control Afghanistan. No wonder that Cameron and Zardari will be meeting behind closed doors!

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Check the label before you buy

The lifting of the state of emergency at the end of 2008 raised hopes of an improvement in the situation for the Bangladesh trade union movement and better economic conditions for workers, but nothing has changed in practice.

Six garment workers were killed in attacks by the police or company security guards during strikes or protests linked to wage demands last year. Many other trade unionists were arrested in 2009.

So it is no surprise that Bangladesh's garment sector workers are the world's most poorly paid, according to a global survey carried out by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

Tens of thousands of garment workers are currently engaged in a bitter strike against a new wage structure announced by the government. Work remains stopped in at least 350 factories despite attempts by union leaders to sell the strikes out.

Strikers on Monday blocked the Dhaka-Narayanganj road, putting barricades across the highway in support of their demand for Taka 5,000 (£54) as minimum monthly pay. The government last week imposed Taka 3,000 (£29). There were violent clashes with the police over the weekend, with over 100 people injured. Most of the injuries were from rubber bullets fired by the police, who also used tear gas against the strikers.

Employing 3.5 million workers, ready made garments and knitwear are Bangladesh's top export earners, netting £7.6 billion last year. Most of the exports are destined for British shops and the employers – many of them global corporations – are determined to keep wages low.

Bangladesh-based factories make clothes for international brands such JCPenney, Wal-Mart, H&M, Marks & Spencer, Zara and Carrefour and do well out of workers whose wages are well below the poverty line. One striker said: "We are rejecting what has been offered as increased wages because it is too inadequate to make ends meet,"

The ITUC survey described working conditions in both the garment and ship breaking industries as “appalling”. The right to join a union is extremely limited and representation requires government approval. Most public sector workers are barred from joining unions.

The government can ban any strike that continues beyond 30 days in “essential services” or if the strike is considered a threat to national interest, in which case the 1974 Special Powers Act can be used to detain trade unionists without charge. Offences such as “obstruction of transport” carry penalties of up to 14 years’ forced labour.

In the ship-breaking sector, child labour is rife. one quarter of the workers in the ship-recycling industry in Bangladesh are children: 10% of the workers are under 12 years old; 15-20% are under the age of 15; and 25% are younger than 18 years old.

Of the garment industry, the ITUC says: “Bangladesh workers faced the same problems that existed under the state of emergency. Employers paid wages late, if paid at all, and numerous factories closed with no notice and without paying workers wages due … Most workers only get 800 to 950 taka (£8.20 to £9.48) per month, the lowest wages for garment workers in the world.”

The impact of the global recession has taken its toll. There are reports that wages have been cut by 20 to 30% this year in a country where almost half the population is already living below the poverty line.

So the next time you pop into M&S, H&M or Zara, you would do well to check the label. If it’s made in Bangladesh you can be certain that the workers who produced it will be living a hand-to-mouth existence, facing violent employers and a brutal state. I’d put the clothes back on the shelf if I were you.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Monday, August 02, 2010

The American dream is a nightmare of foreclosures

Las Vegas – known best for its gambling haunts – now has a new reputation. It’s America’s No.1 city for foreclosures, with more people losing their homes here than elsewhere in the country.

Artist Emily Kennerk has created a 22-hour video installation which shows an image of every home foreclosed in 2009. (Foreclosure is the legal process whereby a bank or lender obtains a court order that terminates the borrower’s right of redemption. It is harsher than repossession).

Describing her installation, Kennerk says as you walk around the town you can’t help but see “this ghost town is forming around you. It’s broader than Las Vegas. This is the first generation that’s going to have to deal with the death of the American dream”.

More than four million US homes have been repossessed in the past three years. A website currently lists 2,304,257 foreclosed properties in the US. In the state of Nevada where unemployment stands at 14%, more than six out of ten of all home sales are currently from foreclosures.

At the start of the sub-prime mortgage crisis, back in September 2008, the US Treasury took the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac into government “conservatorship”. These two mortgage corporations were set up under Roosevelt’s New Deal during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Along with Ginnie Mae (the Government National Mortgage Association) they currently guarantee $5 trillion in US mortgages and 96.5% of all newly originated mortgages in the US.

So far the government has injected $145 billion into them to cover their losses. The mortgage market now is almost a wholly owned subsidiary of the United States government, according to former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volker. "Almost all the mortgages made now are insured by the government, bought by the government, and the guys at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are the market . . . It’s clear Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac need to go. "

But the US is not only affected by a housing crisis. The malaise goes far, far deeper. Three trends have come together. Economists estimate that the annual incomes of the bottom 90% of Americans have risen only 10 per cent in real terms over the past 37 years while the incomes of the top 1 per cent have tripled.

Thus, a “slow economic strangulation”, which began well before the Great Stagnation, now means that income mobility is declining just as inequality rises sharply. Even families with a gross joint income of $70,000 per year, are only “a pay check or two from the streets” as one Minneapolis worker puts it. Medical expenses are a nightmare. Even families on twice the US median joint income have to borrow heavily to have essential, life-saving operations.

Arthur Miller’s 1949 play, Death of a Salesman, dramatised the anxieties arising from US Great Depression of the 1930s and the reliance on credit to provide necessities. During the Cold War years, such plays were seen as an attack on great American dream. But in today’s Great Stagnation, following the years of easy debt-fuelled consumer credit, which analysts call the “Great Moderation”, it’s certainly not playwrights who are pricking the dream-bubble.

The inability of the capitalist system, not only to ensure the fundamental necessities of life, but the very notion of a positive future is self-evident. Cities and states are staring at bankruptcy while trillions of government dollars have failed to revive the economy. As American comedian George Carlin quipped: “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe in it.”

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary