Thursday, March 31, 2011

Can capitalism keep the lights on?

The claim that the crisis at the Fukushima power plant is a Japanese problem because they foolishly built nuclear reactors on an earthquake fault is fatally flawed. As climate change brings more and more extreme weather events, there are many other reactors at risk, from inundation by rising sea levels to damage from hurricanes.

What can happen as a result can be seen from the deterioration in the situation at Fukushima, with continual leaks of dangerous radiation into the air, sea and soil. UN nuclear monitors have urged the Japanese government to expand the evacuation zone round the plant from 20km to 40km. The UK and US governments have told their citizens living in Japan to move at least 80km away from the plant.

Emissions of radioactive iodine and caesium, the isotopes most readily absorbed by the human body, are rising towards the levels that followed the Chernobyl disaster of 1986.

Austrian researchers using a worldwide network of radiation detectors have found iodine-131 at daily levels 73% of those seen at Chernobyl, and caesium-137 at 60%. Researchers are still trying to assess how many new cancer cases have been caused by caesium released at Chernobyl.

Iodine causes thyroid cancer and caesium builds up in the bones, remaining in the body for up to 30 years. Levels of radioactive iodine in seawater off-shore from the Fukushima plant rose by 25% in one day and are now 4,385 times the legal limit. As the concentration increases, so the affected area spreads. A ban on fishing 20km offshore won’t be enough.

The Japanese government says it will consider the UN’s advice about expanding the exclusion zone, but that it doesn’t seem urgent. Citizens disagree, with big anti-nuclear protests taking place on the streets of Tokyo and other cities.

The plant’s owners, Tokyo Electric Power (Tepco) have announced that all four reactors will have to be decommissioned and the company cannot survive this disaster. Behind the scenes, the Japanese government is considering nationalising the company.

As a result, Japanese taxpayers will have to cover the cost of decommissioning and the massive clean up operation. Radiation levels around the plant mean crops and milk will not be useable for many years and it could be decades before it is safe for refugees to return to the area.

Many countries have begun to rethink their nuclear future, including Britain according to coalition deputy prime minister Nick Clegg. But without nuclear power, capitalism faces a massive gap in energy supply.

The response is not to immediately invest in renewable energy however – it is the exact opposite. For example, the Spanish government has slashed its subsidies for solar power, as part of its cuts programme and in response to pressure from big fossil-fuel generating companies Iberdrola, Endesa and Gas Natural.

Instead, the rush is backwards, to the dirtiest forms of fossil fuel. The Obama administration has just given the go-ahead for an expansion in coal mining on federal land, enough to raise the country’s annual climate pollution by more than half. And major oil companies, facilitated by governments, are pushing ahead with the polluting process of extracting shale oil from tar sands.

As energy supplies dwindle, the poorest will pay the price, with rising fuel bills and higher prices for basics such as food and clothes. Capitalism is struggling to sustain “business as usual” from the planet’s dwindling energy resources, and now the question is, can it even keep the lights on? There is clearly no solution within the current economic and political framework of production of energy and commodities for profit.

Penny Cole

Environment editor

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Cracks deepen as 'recovery' proves a myth

New figures from the Office for National Statistics confirm what most people know only too well: living standards are falling sharply as a result of the recession. And the Con-Dem Coalition’s budget measures will ensure that things get a whole lot worse.

Real household disposable income – the total income of Britain's working and unemployed populations after taxes and adjusted for inflation – dropped by 0.8% in 2010, according to the ONS. The slide signals the first drop in real incomes since 1981, also during a recession, and the biggest since 1977, when there was double-digit inflation. The decline is set to worsen sharply to about 2.0% this year as the biggest public spending cuts since the second world war begin in earnest.

Incomes are being held down or falling, whilst prices of basic necessities including food, clothing and transport are soaring. Despite historically low interest rates and falling property prices, housing hasn’t got any cheaper apart from a lucky few with short-lived tracker deals.

Chancellor Osborne has learned something from the family wall coverings firm of Osborne and Little. He’s adept at papering over the cracks, or trying to, using faint praise from the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development – the club of rich countries – which said: “While this budget includes hard measures, we are convinced they are unavoidable in the short term to pave the way for a strong recovery,"

The trouble is there’s no chance of a strong recovery. Trying to bring one about just makes things worse. Despite adopting a series of unprecedented changes, the list of bankrupt European countries is growing rapidly.

Food price inflation brought on by the tsunami of credit that followed the 2008 financial meltdown triggered a wave of simmering revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa that is spreading throughout the region to Syria and Saudi Arabia sending oil prices to record levels despite slowing demand.

In America, the strengthening of financial services regulation is already making a bad crisis worse. According to Alan Greenspan, former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, the legislation “fails to capture the degree of global interconnectedness of recent decades which has not been substantially altered by the crisis of 2008”. Greenspan should know about these things as he presided over the growth of the credit bubble in the first place.

Greenspan, an arch-defender of unbridled capitalism says the modern economy is far too complex for regulators to understand, and to meddle is dangerous. He’s a much more old-fashioned kind of “hands-off” guy, seeing crises as unfortunate exceptions to the normal functioning of the system.

He says: “Today’s competitive markets, whether we seek to recognise it or not, are driven by an international version of Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ that is unredeemably opaque. With notably rare exceptions (2008, for example), the global ‘invisible hand’ has created relatively stable exchange rates, interest rates, prices, and wage rates.”

There is a truth in what he says, of course, in that market forces are pretty much uncontrollable. But in arguing against regulation, Greenspan is forced to open the can of worms that bedevils every one of the capitalist camps – the post-war relationship between growth and ever-expanding credit:

“The vexing question confronting regulators is whether this rising share of finance has been a necessary condition of growth in the past half century, or coincidence. In moving forward with regulatory repair, we may have to address the as yet unproved tie between the degree of financial complexity and higher standards of living.”

Like Osborne’s wallpaper, this thinly-veiled threat fails to mask the reality. Regulation or not, the majority of us will either have to live with the devastating and worsening consequences of the great crash that inevitably brought 50 years of credit fuelled growth to an end, or organise ourselves to replace the capitalist system with a sustainable, not-for-profit alternative.

Gerry Gold

Economics editor

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Colonialism is alive and well

Today’s international conference in London “on the future of Libya” has an unmistakeable colonial ring about it. Put plainly, Britain, France and America are openly plotting the destiny of someone else’s country, which is in the midst of a civil war.

Two things: nothing gives them the right to do this and, as per usual, the objectives are shrouded in a tissue of downright lies from Cameron, Obama and other Western leaders. While the stated aim is not regime change in Libya, in practice that is what is occurring before our very eyes.

Western planes are effectively bombing the opposition into power in Tripoli. Under the cover of a dubious UN resolution, they have openly flouted and exceeded the Security Council’s remit of protecting civilians from government forces and rendering humanitarian assistance through a no-fly zone.

For example, over the weekend RAF Tornados hit 22 tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery pieces which were stationary targets. In the early hours of Monday, they struck ammunition bunkers near Subha in southern Libya, where there is no conflict. These and other attacks have enabled forces fighting Colonel Gaddafi’s regime to make substantial progress without hardly firing a shot.

The hope – and it’s no more than that – is that a less unpredictable and pro-Western regime will replace Gaddafi’s Whether it is more democratic than the present dictatorship is besides the point. Oil and stability are what counts in the short and long term (although did not exactly work out in Iraq where China, apparently, has picked up the oil contracts).

Another dimension is the rush to try and exert some sort of influence and control in the ongoing revolutionary process in North Africa and the Middle East. The US has sanctioned a crackdown in Bahrain with the help of Saudi forces and is promoting Ali Muhsin as a replacement leader in Yemen.

And next door to Libya, the Egyptian revolution has reached a key moment. New laws against protests and strikes, which carry heavy fines and jail terms, are being introduced with the blessing of the armed forces command under Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi. Opposition to the law is growing from organisations like the April 6 Youth Movement.

US defence secretary was in Cairo at the weekend to promise continuing aid to Egypt. In return, Tantawi told Gates he had no objection to the operations in Libya against Gaddafi. Tantawi and his generals represent a counter-revolutionary force in Egypt which has clear US backing. Cries of “Down with Tantawi” are being heard for the first time since the January revolution that overthrew Mubarak. This is not what Gates and Obama want to read and military action in Libya is a shot across the bows of the Egyptian revolution too.

A reluctance to believe anything that the Cameron-Clegg government says is clearly a factor in a new poll showing that seven out of ten people are concerned that the action in Libya could result in Britain being "dragged into a prolonged conflict like the Iraq war". By a margin of 47% to 43%, people do not believe the government was right to commit British forces to action in Libya.

Whatever the solution in Libya is, it cannot be one determined by the likes of Britain, France and America. These countries have not changed their spots suddenly to become agents of humanitarian concern. Turkey has called for a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement between Gaddafi and the uprising in the east of Libya, which would facilitate a transition to a new government. That appeal is likely to be drowned out, however, as sponsored regime change continues to drive the mlitary intervention.

Paul Feldman

Communications editor

Monday, March 28, 2011

The challenge ahead after March 26

The biggest demonstration by the trade union movement and its supporters for a generation reveals both the depth of feeling against the Coalition government’s cuts and a determination to do what it takes to succeed in this struggle.

While the TUC leaders used the collective strength of 300,000 people merely to ask the government politely to change course, many on the march understood that the government is deaf to such pleas. Business secretary Vince Cable confirmed as much the very next day.

Large numbers of people, especially the younger marchers, were dissatisfied with the subservient stance of Brendan Barber and the Trades Union Congress leadership. By taking six months to call a march it has been crystal clear that the hopeless and cynical tactic of “sending a message to the government” was designed to let off steam.

The TUC’s aim was and remains to deflect any real struggle against Cameron, Clegg and Osborne and the system they seek to preserve. That is why left trade unions such as the RMT, fire-fighters and PCS were denied a platform in Hyde Park. Instead, marchers had to endure Labour leader Ed – “I want a prosperous capitalism” – Miliband in his suit.

Thus the great streams of those from all over the country who want keep public services alive were led to Hyde Park to be frustrated in their desire to defend themselves against the Osborne axe. Not surprisingly, of course, there were many, young and old, who rejected the corralling of the demonstration into the arms of the TUC leaders whose only perspective is to return New Labour to power.

Frustration with the pro-system TUC and Labour leaders saw many alternative actions being taken, some by anarchist groups, some by the anti-tax dodging group UK Uncut, others by those inspired by the overthrow of dictatorships in north Africa. Some sought to encourage occupations around London by setting up tents in Hyde Park. A large banner calling for regime change hung from the bottom of Nelson’s column in Trafalgar Square.

We do not join in criticising those who chose direct action over marching. Of course, the media concentrated on the street confrontations rather than the march. But we should have no illusions in the capitalist media either. They are not there to boost anti-government actions, whatever their nature.

The message from TUC and Labour circles is that anything other than peaceful protest must be destructive anarchy. How it makes your stomach turn to read that Jim Murphy, New Labour’s shadow defence secretary, says that a "tiny minority of violent, parasitic, unrepresentative hooligans” were “trying to destroy" the right to peaceful protest. That is to equate the repressive forces of the state with those who oppose the system.

Undoubtedly there were provocateurs at work too. Significantly, one Facebook group picked up the words of a “Black Bloc” provocateur who was videoed breaking into a bank saying: "I'm a COP, undercover!" and was then clearly allowed to leave freely by the police.

Some peaceful protesters, who wanted to simply read out poetry inside Fortnum and Masons, found themselves trapped by the police after others, possibly also infiltrated by undercover agents, invaded the premises. Others who wanted to party in Trafalgar Square were attacked by the police. Nearly 150 protesters are facing serious criminal charges.

These are still early days. The real effect of the cuts is only just beginning while the economic and political crisis is deepening. Cameron and company don’t really exude power and control in the face of the demands of investment bankers, bond dealers and the corporations.

The most important issue is that of developing truly alternative strategies that in a mass, collective way challenge the power of the state and through it the rule of corporate and finance capital. The slogans of fighting back and direct action and even “regime change” need to be filled with real content.

Simply "pushing back the rule of money", as some like philosopher John Holloway propose, denies the real creative power of the majority in society to bring about change while allowing repressive power structures to stay in place.

Taking inspiration from the demonstrators in Egypt and countries around the Middle East means going beyond rage and frustration to the formation of a network of People’s Assemblies to work for a transfer of power and authority to a new democratic political and economic system.

Corinna Lotz

A World to Win secretary

Friday, March 25, 2011

The time to move beyond resistance is now!

The right-wing leadership of the TUC sees tomorrow’s anti-cuts march as a one-off protest that merely “sends a message” to a government which has launched the most comprehensive attack on living standards, jobs and services since the 1930s. March 26 is, however, where the fight to bring down the Coalition gets under way in earnest.

TUC leaders have sat on their hands since the ConDem government took office and immediately went on the offensive. Local councils were allowed to implement cuts without any serious union-led opposition. General secretary Brendan Barber is desperate to find a compromise with the government where none exists.

He is also anxious to keep tomorrow’s turn-out under control, working closely with the police and hiring professional stewards to get people to march from A to B, listen to demagogic speeches and then go home. But this will not simply not do. The economic and political situation is far too grave for marches by themselves to have any significant impact.

That is why A World to Win supports the plans that activists have announced for, amongst other things, staying behind in Hyde Park for a day, holding a Constituent Assembly on Sunday, occupying Trafalgar Square in an echo of the take-over of Tahrir Square in Cairo, and for protests in Oxford Street against tax-dodging corporations.

Their merit is that they recognise in one way or another that challenging the authority of the government and the corporations they rule on behalf of, is necessary, even if the objectives are as yet unclear or not agreed upon.

If anyone doubts that the Cameron-Clegg-Osborne government is gripped by crisis, the budget revealed all. Their so-called Plan A of cutting the deficit to revive the economy can’t and won’t work. Ministers can’t even get fuel prices down by 1p a litre and the oil corporations have threatened to sack thousands in response to plans for a tax levy. Growth targets, which measure the health of the capitalist economy and nothing else, are looking decidedly terminal.

Inflation means the cuts will have to be larger than forecast to meet the aim of eliminating a budget deficit that arises out of the global crisis of capitalism, which is far from over (even if the TUC denies there is such a thing). Portugal’s Socialist Party-led government has collapsed over austerity measures and now faces paying 8.4% for loans (Ireland is paying 10% plus). Spain, also led by the “Socialists”, is where the next domino is scheduled to fall. As prices rise, interest rates on UK government borrowing (now 3.57%) will rise too, adding to the debt.

So the Coalition is not for turning, not least because the financial markets and the impact of the global recession say so. It is doing what capitalism demands in times of need – drive down living standards, put people out of work and declare that there is no alternative. There is certainly no alternative in Labour, which, as Ed Miliband says openly, favours a “more prosperous capitalism”, presumably achieved by cutting more slowly than the Tories.

We say “No” to the British, French and American attacks on Libya for many reasons. But an important one is the fact that the government wants to divert attention away from what’s going on in Britain. And of course, Miliband is helping out on that one too, wrapping himself and his party in the Union Jack to back the government’s illegal onslaught.

Let’s take our inspiration, instead, from the uprisings and revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East, that began in Tunisia, swept through Egypt and found their way to Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and now Syria. We have to build a movement that stretches across every sector of the community to challenge the government, to bring it down and to build a revolutionary alternative to capitalism. After March 26, the movement has to organise itself in People’s Assemblies for this purpose. The planning event on April 9 is crucial in moving beyond resistance to liberation through self-determination.

Paul Feldman

Communications editor

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Nuclear regulation in Japan 'amiable fiction'

You would think that of all countries, Japan would be cautious about nuclear power. But no, this is capitalism, stupid! Nothing must be permitted to stand in the way of profits, not even the threat of a catastrophic meltdown.

The consequences of the disaster at the Fukushima plant following the earthquake and tsunami are just coming to light. Radioactive iodine twice the safe level for babies has been found in Tokyo’s water supply, and there are bans on milk and food from a growing contaminated area round the stricken plants.

Three workers are in hospital after being exposed to excess radioactivity when a plume of radioactive steam rose from the plant on Wednesday. Many firefighters are wondering if they have a future at all, in light of what happened to those who fought the fire at Chernobyl. Japan’s farming industry is being devastated as countries including the US, Australia and South Korea, ban imports.

Japan’s prime minister was overheard accusing the plant’s operators Tokyo Electricity and Power Company (TEPCO) of even now not telling the truth about what is happening. TEPCO have a long history of lies and cover-ups, according to Citizens Nuclear Information Center (CNIC), Japan's largest anti-nuclear organisation.

In 2002, TEPCO’s president and four other executives resigned, admitting “dishonest practices”, after covering up the failure of a crucial piece of equipment in all its 17 reactors. In 2007 a TEPCO plant in West Japan was damaged by an earthquake and burned for two hours; hundreds of gallons of radioactive water leaked into the sea. The company claimed there had been just a small fire and covered up the water leak.

The Japanese state is more concerned with marketing TEPCO’s ageing nuclear technology abroad than with regulation. As Philip White, English language spokesman for CNIC, puts it: "There's no true regulation of the Japanese nuclear industry. It's just an amiable fiction."

Writing in the Guardian this week, George Monbiot explained how the Fukushima accident has, bizzarely, converted him to the joys of nuclear power. If old and inadequate reactors can withstand the biggest-ever earthquake with only a low level of leaking radiation, then nuclear power is OK by him, provided certain conditions are met:

“1. Its total emissions – from mine to dump – are taken into account, and demonstrate that it is a genuinely low-carbon option 2. We know exactly how and where the waste is to be buried. 3. We know how much this will cost and who will pay 4. There is a legal guarantee that no civil nuclear materials will be diverted for military purposes.”

Clearly, this particular nuclear power development is going to take place on Planet Dreamland. Unfortunately here on planet earth, the nuclear future is in the hands of profit-driven corporations, who have always lied about risks, accidents, costs and waste disposal, and governments who either don’t have the guts to stand up to them, or are actually in cahoots with them.

But Monbiot is not alone. Fuelling capitalist business as usual with nuclear power is proposed by an increasing number of otherwise serious green campaigners. This counsel of despair suggests that human society has no other option than to allow capitalism to go on raping and pillaging the planet, and that our role is to propose new ways for it to fuel its activities.

It suggests that the climate crisis – which is certainly caused by fossil fuel burning - exists in isolation from the existential crisis affecting the survival of the whole eco-system for a multiplicity of reasons arising from the capitalist form of production.

Their problem is liberal scepticism about the potential for change, which A World to Win does not share. Human beings have the potential to replace the current corporate-led governments with a global network of People’s Assemblies.

With democratic control of production, we can establish a rational relationship with nature, where production for need using renewable energy sources, replaces the present obscene multiplication of commodities. It can be done and it must be done.

Penny Cole

Environment editor

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

March for a real alternative

Figures published on the eve of the Budget shed more light on an unrelenting global crisis that pays little or no attention to chancellor Osborne, or to his shadow-boxing “critics” at the Trades Union Congress.

Ever since the TUC announced its March for the Alternative way back in October, it has been promoting the slogan – “Jobs, Growth, Justice”. In practice, it's no alternative at all.

To back up its central plea for growth, the TUC has been arguing that spending cuts announced last October and being implemented around the country by Labour and Tory councils alike, are just not necessary. They are simply part of a conspiracy by the government to favour the bankers who are really the culprits and should be made to pay the cost of the yawning deficit.

This simplistic, muddle-headed “analysis” has, unfortunately, been picked up and broadcast onwards by people engaged in the most radical of actions. As one student in a college occupation said: “There are real alternatives to the problems facing higher education funding ... what we are seeing are ideological political choices, not necessities… It is the public sector, including students and lecturers, who are being made to pay, not the overzealous banking system who caused many problems that the country is now dealing with.”

At the heart of it all is a global crisis of capitalism, however, not just a bunch of crazed bankers who got out of hand. This can’t be sorted by pumping more money into the economy and can make even matters worse, as figures from the Office for National Statistics show. The injection of massive doses of credit to shock the stopped heart of global capital back to life after 2008 has at best put the economy back on the accelerating inflationary path it has been following for more than 10 years, whilst gross domestic product – the key measure of growth – has failed to recover.

The Consumer Prices Index annual rate of inflation has risen to 4.4%, while a more realistic index shows a rate of price increases of 5.5%. All the essentials are soaring: clothing, footwear, food and fuel. Diesel prices have passed 140 pence per litre at the pump in some areas. Clearly much worse is to come as events in the Middle East unfold.

The combined effect of the crisis and actions by governments has been to reduce the incomes of households in the UK. The real income of those in the middle of the income distribution will be 1.6% lower in 2011 than it was in 2008, wiping out all the gains made in the previous 50 years. Pensioner households saw their average income fall even further, by 2.4%. As Stephanie Flanders, the BBC’s economics editor has it, for most people “the recovery has been more painful so far than the recession”.

All the analysts agree on one thing: Osborne has little room for manoeuvre. So we’re likely to see plans to revive the Wild West-style low tax, low regulation, low-wage economy of enterprise zone of the 1980s. It's desperate stuff from a cornered government that, however, knows it faces little official opposition in Parliament or from the TUC.

This isn’t a peculiarly British phenomenon that can be fixed with more credit, or even by changing the government. The TUC’s policies of more taxes and higher public spending wilfully fail to address the real issue: the meltdown at the core of the economic system of production for profit, aka capitalism, for which there are no quick fixes. Avoiding the challenge of an alternative not-for-profit model of ecologically-sustainable production for need, simply strengthens the hand of Osborne and company.

Gerry Gold

Economics editor

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Parliament of warmongers

Just in case you think the overwhelming Parliamentary majority of 544 for military action against Libya – only 13 MPs voted no - reflects popular opinion, think again. Seldom has the view of the House of Commons been so diametrically at odds with that of the electorate.

Of course, misgivings about military action can take many forms. Some people hate violence of any kind, while others think foreigners should be left to get with killing themselves. Nevertheless, the ComRes/ ITV News poll that came just after MPs voted to back the Coalition’s warmongering is significant.

Only 35% agree it is right for the UK to take military action against Colonel Gaddafi’s forces in Libya, while two thirds either disagree (43%) or don’t know (22%). The poll shows that 53% of people think British forces shouldn’t risk death to protect Libyan opposition forces against Gaddafi’s regime.

Nearly half (49%) agree that military action in Libya is an unnecessary risk for Britain to take, although 31% disagree. Although a YouGov poll makes better reading for the government, it still shows 55% do not support military action over Libya.

But the Commons was swept up in the usual chauvinist sentiment that overwhelms the place at a time when a country with an imperial past (but reduced to a faded state with an aircraft carrier but no planes for it) bangs the military drum. This time the Lib Dems, who stood out against the invasion of Iraq, to an MP walked through the yes lobby to back prime minister Cameron.

And, inevitably, the Labour leadership joined in, with Ed Miliband wrapping himself in the flag. There are echoes of 1982 here, when the deeply unpopular Tory government led by Margaret Thatcher depended on the then Labour leader Michael Foot for support in the Commons for the war with Argentina over the miserable Falkland islands, some 8,000 miles away. She ordered the sinking of the Belgrano battleship as it sailed out of the exclusion zone and the rest is history. Her party recovered to win election after election. No doubt Cameron will be hoping for a similar change in his party’s fortunes.

It was left to John McDonnell and eight other Labour MPs to vote against the government, with two more acting as tellers, out of a total of 258. How shocking is that figure? McDonnell told the debate: “I oppose Britain's involvement in the middle east because we have a century and a half of involvement-in pursuit of the region's mineral wealth-that is steeped in blood, murder and maiming. We do not have the credibility to intervene constructively.”

For the record, Green MP Caroline Lucas also voted against, along with two SDLP MPs from Northern Ireland and a lone Tory, John Baron. He told the BBC: "Once again, we could be seen to be meddling in a Muslim country. We're told the Arab League and our Arab allies want to put in a no-fly zone - why not let them get on and do it.”

Meanwhile, if you drive a car you'll know that it’s costing a small fortune to fill up these days as the oil corporations cash in. That’s nothing compared to the cost of a 3,000-mile round trip the Tornado jets are making to bomb Libya. Running costs alone are about £45,000 an hour while each missile costs around £1 million. They are flying at night to avoid being shot down, presumably, because it would cost £50 mllion to replace one.

So when your library puts up the closed notice, or the local park looks more shabby each day as spending cuts bite, don’t moan and groan. Do your patriotic duty and cheer. Each bomb dropped, each missile fired is, in the words of the government, “in our national interest”. Believe that and you’ll believe anything!

Paul Feldman

Communications editor

Monday, March 21, 2011

Regime change is the real war aim

So Liam Fox, the Coalition’s defence secretary, has let the cat out of the bag. The aim of the air strikes on Libya is to kill Colonel Gaddafi and bring about regime change, whatever the UN Security Council resolution says.

Asked if Gaddafi might be considered a target, Fox told BBC Radio 5: "That would potentially be a possibility." Then today a senior UK military source told Sky News: “As head of Libyan armed forces, Colonel Gaddafi is a 'legitimate military target'.”

And it is already obvious that the ferocious bombardment of Tripoli and the Libyan coast by hundreds of missiles fired from submarines and destroyers is devastating large swathes of Libya and killing untold numbers of civilians.

The gung-ho Fox and prime minister David Cameron have, of course, the slavish support of Labour leader Ed Miliband in Parliament. He and the rest of Parliament, with a few honourable exceptions, have backed military action against oil-rich Libya.

All the rhetoric of standing by the civilians who rebelled against Gaddafi’s rule is a prime example of the use of weapons of mass hypocrisy, as many have pointed out. No one at the UN is talking about a no-fly zone over Israel, in particular, which has defied UN resolutions on Palestine for many decades.

Just as “weapons of mass destruction” were the excuse for invading Iraq so “humanitarian concern for the rebels” is the excuse for attacking Libya – and it as phony as last time. Regime change to take control of large areas of the Arab oil field is the real reason.

Whether Gaddafi stays or goes, the military intervention could have disastrous consequences for the people on the ground and could easily lead to a non-functioning state of warring tribes as in Somalia and elsewhere.

Whilst services around Britain are being slashed on the grounds that money must be saved, no expense is being spared in the assault on Libya. Tornado pilots are flying 3,000-mile round trips from Norfolk, refueling several times in mid-air. The fuel bill alone must be staggering. But there is always money for a war. This squandering of resources is doubly striking when you think the reason they want to control whoever leads Libya is because the country’s so-called “sweet” oil is particularly good for production of jet fuel on which the military relies.

The very same regimes, who as part of the Arab League backed the UN resolution to enforce a no-fly zone, are now furiously backpedaling as the scale and real intention of the attack on Libya emerges and with it the anger of their own people against them grows.

But it is clear they see that the attack on Libya potentially benefits autocracy and undermines the revolutionaries. The King of Bahrain today confidently predicted that the uprising there is over, and that a “foreign plot” to overthrow him has been foiled. And three top Yemeni generals claim to have defected to the opposition, clearly seeing an opportunity to form a profitable military junta.

The war on Libya has another and even more crucial aim – co-opting and undermining the wave of revolutions against pro-Western autocracies throughout Africa and the Middle East. The Libyan uprising was inspired by the mass revolt that began in neighbouring Tunisia in December has, as we know, been spreading to Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and deep into the Middle East.

As one British resident in Tobruk told the BBC, the major powers are desperate to compromise not only the uprising against Gaddafi but the revolutions in the eyes of the Arab people. Yes, the rebels in Benghazi called for Western intervention and the no-fly zone. Many sympathetic to their struggle have supported this call.

But as some in Benghazi are now admitting, this was a serious mistake. Self-determination, democracy and human rights cannot be imposed by naked force at the end of a bayonet – or in this case by Cruise missile bombardment. Any such regime that comes to power in Libya will be tainted from the outset.

A World to Win editors

Friday, March 18, 2011

No to military intervention in Libya

Let’s be clear from the outset. Whatever the leaders of Britain, France and the US say, taking military action against Libya is not primarily aimed at protecting civilians. Human rights have never been top of their agenda, as victims of Western foreign policy around the world will testify.

There are more strategic interests involved here. What wasn’t spelled out at the United Nations Security Council is that the objective is regime change in Tripoli that produces a pro-Western government in place of the unpredictable Colonel Gaddafi. A government that will permit the unhindered exploitation of the country’s oil resources and move towards a market economy.

Far from supporting the new Arab revolution, the no-fly zone and other military action is aimed at limiting and distorting its evolution. It opens up opportunities for the West to launch a whole new set of conspiracies in the Middle East and well as putting Libyan civilians at risk of death from air strikes.

Pressure is being exerted on Egypt to involve its air force in attacks on Libya. The Egyptian armed forces, which are deeply split, will be compromised if they agree. Collaborating with former colonial powers Britain and France, which invaded the country in 1956, will be a blow to the Egyptian people and their history.

Support from the Arab League is no basis for military action either. This decrepit organisation is stuffed full of dictators and sheikdoms like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia who are jointly gunning down unarmed civilians. US defence secretary Robert Gates was in Saudi last weekend and undoubtedly gave them the green light to suppress pro-democracy demonstrations. More like a free fire zone in this case.

So the stench of hypocrisy is overwhelming. Robert Mugabe can murder trade unionists and opposition forces in Zimbabwe, Israel can bomb defenceless Gaza on an almost daily basis and the Burmese junta can continue its brutal rule. The major powers either stand by or, in the case of the Israeli government, furnish it with money and weapons. They deny the legitimacy of the Hamas government in Gaza because they didn’t like the result of the elections there.

There are, naturally, other aspects to the posturing of David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy. Both lead governments that are deeply despised in their own countries for imposing cuts and austerity measures on their people in desperate attempts to revive an increasingly distressed capitalist system. There’s nothing like a little war somewhere to subdue opposition and divert attention with doses of patriotism and jingoism.

Venezuela and Turkey have offered to mediate between Gaddafi and the revolutionary forces ranged against his troops. But Britain, France and the US rejected these overtures although Tripoli did not rule out talks. Where was the UN when negotiation was still a possibility? As usual, the UN is no guarantor of rights either.

Those who proposed action against Gaddafi collaborated with his murderous regime for many years, bringing him back into the “international community” (whatever that is). They could as just easily go back to supporting him on the basis of some deal tomorrow

The Arab revolution is entering a new phase, when it is urgent that the masses form alliances across the borders. In Egypt, in particular, the task is to remove the corrupt general staff – who control 25% of the country’s economy – and create a revolutionary armed forces who will be able to support the Libyan revolt.

There are reports of Egyptians who took part in the revolution that overthrew Mubarak arriving in Benghazi in solidarity with the Libyan uprising against the Gaddafi dictatorship. That could be made into the start of direct help from Egypt so that the people of Libya can settle their accounts with Gaddafi by way of self-determination.

In Britain, we should campaign against military intervention in Libya and redouble our efforts to remove the Coalition government from power. Labour, which jointly led the invasion of Iraq, is fully backing Cameron. No surprises there. The political class in Parliament is reactionary and bankrupt. Our own revolutionary movement can’t come soon enough.

Paul Feldman

Communications editor

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Seed treaty legalises theft

An international treaty designed to conserve the world’s seed diversity is instead legitimising the rights of global agri-business to steal ownership of genetic material whilst weakening the rights of peasant farmers.

The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, proposed at climate change talks in Bali in 2007, has established a copyright-free global seed bank. The stated aim was to protect the widest possible range of seeds to respond to climate change.

But because it was agreed by governments who always put the rights of global agri-business first, it included recognition of World Trade Organisation rules on industrial copyright as applied to genetic material including seeds. The rights of farmers, on the other hand, were left to the tender mercies of national governments, who entirely fail to enforce them.

The result is a treaty that is conserving seeds but at the same time undermining the rights of the farmers who have created them. As the organisation Via Campesina, which represents peasant farmers from across the world, states in its Bali Seed Declaration: “It is a contradictory and ambiguous treaty, which in the final analysis comes down on the side of theft.”

Some 127 countries have now signed the treaty, and the gene pool created has reached 1.5 million samples of the world’s 64 most important food crops and more are on the way. But Via Campesina say the bank is simply being used to “legitimate the industry’s access to those peasant seeds that are stored in collections around the world”.

They point out that the seeds which the global corporations use as their base material already represent thousands of years of knowledge and skill of farmers selecting seeds for successful replanting under their local conditions. The best way to respond to climate change is to support farmers in continuing this process of selection as close to the growing areas as possible.

The farmers state: “We cannot conserve biodiversity and feed the world while our rights to save, use, exchange and sell our seeds are criminalised by laws that legalise the privatisation and commodification of seeds. The Seed Treaty is the only treaty to date to contemplate farmers’ rights. However states do not respect these rights, in opposition to their respect of industrial property rights. Therefore, the Treaty must give peasant rights the highest priority, and these rights must be legally binding. They must be guaranteed in every one of the 127 countries that have ratified the Treaty.”

They point out the contradiction of responding to climate change by creating “seed museums for the benefit of biopirate corporations”, whilst banning farmers from themselves developing seeds that respond to changing growing conditions, as they have done for thousands of years.

The Via Campesina statement is a challenge to the monopolising power of the corporations and to the whole “high input, high output” approach which continues to be the main response to the food and agriculture crisis facing the planet. To respond to climate change with the same industrial methods that caused it is simply continuing down the road to destruction. As Via Campesina says, there is a clear confrontation between “greenwashed” capitalism, and the kind of sustainable agricultural methods which can truly respond to climate change and the need to feed the world.

Via Campesina quite rightly demands an immediate transformation of the treaty to repeal laws that privatise and commodify seeds and deny peasant rights. However, turning society upside-down, or rather, right way up, in this way is not a task the United Nations is equipped to achieve.

Such a transformation can only come about through the development of a global network of democratic people’s assemblies, who will work together to sustain humans and the eco-system they rely on. This will include the democratisation of ownership of the global corporations putting any scientific benefits they can offer at the service of the whole of humanity and not simply the service of profit.

Penny Cole

Environment editor

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Profits loom larger than cost of human misery

Analysts are at work trying to minimise the damage to the profitability of the capitalist system from the disaster in Japan. Never mind the towns and villages cut off from all contact without access to food or medical supplies or facing radiation poisoning - the bottom line is the priority.

Big business and the markets are asking what will be the net effect on the oil price if revolution erupts in Saudi Arabia, cutting its production, but demand in Japan falls? And what will that do to the prospects of a global double-dip recession?

In Japan, ports, airports, highways and most manufacturing plants have closed, and the government has predicted “considerable impact on a wide range of our country’s economic activities”.

The damage to nuclear reactors is beyond the worst of the worst case predictions. Eleven reactors are shut down, at least four are broken beyond repair. Swathes of economic activity are at a standstill, and more will follow. Oil imports are bound to soar, adding to the country’s crisis.

Japan is the world’s third largest national economy, having slipped behind China after two decades of unremitting recession. Throughout the period production by world famous brands like Sony, Mitsubishi, Toyota has been kept afloat on an ocean of debt.

After a series of failed attempts to kick start a return to growth, its accumulated national debt was already by far the world’s highest at 225% of gross domestic product. Government income from taxes covers less than half the budget, and pension funds are becoming net sellers of bonds to meet payouts to the elderly.

The Bank of Japan has made 21.8 trillion yen ($US265 billion) available to financial institutions and doubled its asset-buying program to 10 trillion yen, but it hasn’t been enough to stop a global collapse of share values. Japan’s banks are now vulnerable because of the subsequent fall in the value of their equity assets.

As the Financial Times reported: “Economists generally welcomed the central bank’s move as a measure to quell potential panic over access to funds in the wake of a major disaster. But some said the liquidity injection was not likely to be enough to counter the negative impact of the quake and tsunami on the Japanese economy, already weakened by a strong yen and deflationary pressures.”

As the tragedy unfolds, those who operate in the financial markets are weighing their options. Their only concerns are for how money can be made out of the destruction. Reconstruction will need to be funded from somewhere, and that means a big expansion of credit –at a price.

The cost of further borrowing is already on the rise as lenders pile the pressure on the distressed country, just as they are doing in Portugal (whose debt was downgraded last night), Ireland (desperately seeking to renegotiate its bail-out) Greece (paying a staggering 13% to borrow on the bond markets) and Spain (which needs an estimated €130 billion to recapitalise its banks).

The movement of the earth’s crust, hidden from view, has brought two things into even sharper relief:

- continued pursuit of a for-profit system of growth fuelled by oil and nuclear power is simply not sustainable.

- the historic necessity of creating a not-for-profit society in which people produce what they need in a way which repairs the damage to the planet’s eco-system resulting from decades of corporate exploitation.

Today’s unemployment figures in Britain, showing a 17-year high at over 2.5 million, add to the urgency to create an alternative path for humanity in every country.

Gerry Gold

Economics editor

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

European politics at the cross-roads

A new survey shows that there is a “crisis in European democracy” as faith and trust in politicians plummets to new lows. No surprises there but, equally, an opportunity to create a different future.

The Guardian/ICM poll of five European Union countries confirms that the sharp decline in relations between the political class and people in Britain is, in fact, a near universal feature.

Bad enough during the credit-fuelled “boom years”, when governments were singing the praises of the seemingly invincible market economy, the recession precipitated by the 2008 meltdown has obviously accelerated negative attitudes to politicians and through them to state structures.

The survey reveals:

• Only 6% of people across Europe say they have a great deal of trust in their government. Overall, the percentage of those who think politicians are not at all, or not very, honest outweighs those who disagree by a massive 89%.

• Only 9% of Europeans think their politicians – in opposition or in power – act with honesty and integrity.

• The lack of trust in government is greatest in Poland and France, where distrust outweighs trust by a net 82 percentage points. In France, the net negative score is 78 points and in Germany 80 points, while in Britain it is 66 points.

Some 78% of those questioned don’t trust the government to deal with their country’s problems, with the figure in Britain a huge 80%.

• Even fewer Europeans think their politicians are honest. In Poland, only 3% of those questioned agree; in Britain 12%. Overall, a mammoth 89% believe politicians are not honest.

• 40% of those polled think their economy will get worse over the next 12 months, against 20% who think it will improve. In France, pessimists outnumber optimists by 46%. In Britain, the difference is 40%

• Overall, only 42% of the 5,000 people questioned believe that governments should cut spending to reduce the national debt, while in Britain, more than two-thirds disagreed.

• In Britain, a majority think the next decade will either leave them poorer or, at best, no better off. Only a quarter think Britain will get richer over the next 10 years.

• Overall, 62% describe themselves as liberal on social issues - the highest percentage being in Germany.

The political vacuum that has appeared across Europe – and no doubt in the United States where one poll rated comedian Jon Stewart the country’s most trusted person – is going to be filled sooner or later.

The question is, by who and how? The poll findings can be seen as a reflection of the exhaustion of the present, bourgeois political process, with its limited, essentially superficial democracy. It provides for representation but without power, which stays firmly in the hands of the governing classes and, significantly, the financiers and corporations who dominate the economy.

Europe’s ruling classes are in general riding out the recessionary storm while ordinary people are heading for the dole queue, seeing their services smashed up and their incomes plummet as price inflation takes off. Bankers collect their bonuses while households in Britain collect their food parcels.

The survey actually reveals that the crisis is not in democracy itself but in what passes for democracy. Restoring faith and trust in an exhausted political system that is past its sell-by date is a fruitless task and would, in any case, still leave real power out of reach.

Creating more advanced forms of democracy such as People’s Assemblies that embrace the workplace and put citizens in control and charge of society’s resources, is the challenge that lies immediately in front.

Paul Feldman

Communications editor

Monday, March 14, 2011

Faustian pact with nuclear power

Many have praised the Japanese people’s resilience and preparedness in response to the earthquake and tsunami which has killed thousands of people with many more unaccounted for.

But as a second explosion at the Yukushima nuclear plant releases another blast of radiation into the atmosphere, what began as a natural disaster is being made worse by what is described as human folly.

However, we are not talking about human madness in general so much as the interests of power-generating companies and governments in their thrall. Why build 53 nuclear power plants in a country which lies directly on earthquake fault-lines and which only 16 years ago experienced a major disaster in the city of Kobe?

The wisdom of building more and more plants, not only in earthquake-prone areas, but near urban centres is being questioned around the world, as peak oil drives capitalist governments to switch to nuclear power generation in an almost desperate effort to diversify energy sources.

Naturally there are those who would prefer to leave the nuclear industry alone to get on with tapping the public purse. In the United States for example, one politician claims that it would be "poor form for anyone to criticise the nuclear industry, or pronounce the end of nuclear power, because of a natural disaster that has been a national tragedy for the Japanese people".

Others, however, have pointed clearly to the danger of increasing reliance on nuclear power generation. A leading seismologist, Ishibashi Katsuhiko warned in 2007 about the likelihood of just such an accident. Katsuhiko, an expert in urban safety at Kobe University, has said that Japan’s government, the power industry and the academic community had all underestimated the potential risks posed by major quakes.

He points out that over past decades the power of earthquakes has grown far greater than Japanese plants were designed to survive. In addition, deliberate falsification of data caused a scandal at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant in 2002. Managers there at first refused to admit inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Authority Agency (IAEA).

Politicians in virtually every country have been singing the praises of increased dependence on nuclear power stations, all of them constructed with huge government subsidies. Sixty reactors are in construction around the globe. According to the World Nuclear Association "another 150 or more planned to come on line during the next 10 years, and over 200 further back in the pipeline".

Ed Miliband, as energy secretary, in 2009 approved 10 more for Britain. None of them will be built without massive state support. Energy corporations are already suggesting a carbon tax that could cost the average household more than £200 extra per year. After initial doubts, Prime Minister David Cameron is now a "convert".

The result of the expansion programme will be a huge increase in uranium mining, with new operations already being opened up in Namibia and Kazakhstan.

Uranium mining exposes miners and their communities to high levels of carcinogenic radon gas. There is no safe way of disposing of waste, which also carries significant health risks.

The idea that nuclear is a contribution to reduced carbon emissions is rubbish. The result of extracting the uranium and the billions of tons of cement needed to build all these huge plants will be massive CO2 emissions. It is unlikely any future savings in emissions would offset this early surge over the whole life of a reactor.

A study by the Rocky Mountain Institute, which campaigns for rational use of the world’s resources, says that if every dollar spent on nuclear power were invested instead in energy efficiency measures, it would produce seven times greater reduction in carbon emissions. But the corporations are not going to get profits from energy efficiency – and people using less fuel means smaller profits for them.

In Japan, the trauma of losing entire towns to the tsunami and the rescue operation may for the time being put the nuclear issue into the background. But the political fall-out could be just beginning as confidence in those who blithely continue the Faustian pact with nuclear power plummets further.

Corinna Lotz

A World to Win secretary

Friday, March 11, 2011

Pensions attack brings tipping point nearer

On both sides of the Atlantic, a massive onslaught is under way with the single purpose of dramatically reducing the share of national wealth going to working and retired people in favour of the rich, powerful elites who own and control the economy.

This is not an “ideological attack”, as some trade union leaders in Britain claim, but capitalism trying to “solve” the crisis that has enveloped the system since 2008. The global market for commodities has shrunk, with recession and unemployment taking over.

As the low-cost Chinese and Indian economies seize the initiative, corporations operating in North America and Europe are desperate to drive down costs and increase the surplus going to shareholders as the basis for “renewed growth”.

In Britain this week alone, the Coalition launched its historic attack on welfare benefits, including the disability living allowance (DLA), and published proposals that undermine public sector pensions. The aim is to cut DLA expenditure by 20% by 2015-16. The Disability Alliance says: “We believe the new approach risks over 835,000 disabled people losing what is often described as an essential ‘lifeline’ of support.”

Yesterday, with considerable help from Labour peer Lord Hutton, public sector pensions were hung out to dry. Under the plans, firefighters and others will have to work well into their 60s, pay more in contributions and receive less in pensions than at present. Pay more for less, in other words.

Yet, as a table in the Hutton report shows, the actual cost of the present public sector pensions scheme as a share of national income is forecast to decline over the next 20 years. So this is all about spending cuts and a redistribution of wealth to the private sector.

Which is the story in Wisconsin, where a union-busting law has been railroaded through the state legislature by Republicans against a background of mass opposition which has included sit-ins and demonstrations into the early hours of the morning. The Wisconsin bill “could spell the beginning of the end of public-sector unions,” warned former US Labour Secretary Robert Reich.

Collective bargaining rights are substantially eroded and state workers have to pay 5.8% of their salary toward pensions and 12.6% of their health-insurance costs. Calls for a state-wide general strike are under discussion. Similar moves are afoot in Ohio as states face up to a combined debt of $100 billion that results from the recession.

In Britain, as in the United States, the question is how to fight against capitalism’s attempts to make workers pay for the crisis. In Britain, it certainly cannot be through the Labour Party which is essentially glove in hand with the Coalition. Labour-controlled councils have, for example, passed on government spending cuts at town hall level.

Labour leader Ed Miliband, who favours a “fairer”, “prosperous capitalism”, instructed his backbenchers this week to abstain (!) on the government’s anti-welfare legislation, leaving a handful of MPs like John McDonnell to do the right thing and vote against. Why did Miliband do this? Because many of the government’s proposals actually follow from attacks on benefits begun by New Labour, so there is no disagreement in principle between the two major parties.

While trade union leaders lined up to attack the Hutton report and threatened strike action, Labour’s response was muted to say the least. Angela Eagle, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, only said that “it would be deeply unfair for public sector workers to disproportionately bear the brunt" of what were “tough choices”. Thank you and good night.

Add in soaring prices for food and fuel, rising unemployment, the attack on the NHS and other public services and you sense that a tipping point is coming. Most people will soon find it simply impossible to get by. When that occurs, the road to take will be more like Egypt’s ongoing revolution than one-day protest strikes and lobbies of an undemocratic Parliament stuffed full of pompous, self-seeking “representatives”.

Paul Feldman

Communications editor

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Earth's early warning system is dying

Scientists working for the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) have identified more than a dozen factors behind the colony collapse affecting bee populations across the world.

Factors ranging from the decline of flowering plants and the use of memory-damaging insecticides to the world-wide spread of pests and air pollution, are contributing to the collapse.

And these factors are being multiplied and spread across the world by the uncontrolled and unconsidered corporate-driven globalisation of agriculture and international trade.

The report warns that “without profound changes to the way human-beings manage the planet, declines in pollinators needed to feed a growing global population are likely to continue”.

The Increasing use of chemicals, including “systemic insecticides” and those used to coat seeds, is damaging or toxic to bees. Unplanned combinations of chemicals can be even more damaging, the so-called “cocktail effect”.

And finally, climate change will aggravate the situation in various ways including by changing the flowering times of plants and shifting rainfall patterns, affecting the quantity and quality of available nectar.

Bees are the planet’s early warning system, and indicators of wider impacts on animal and plant life, including human life. Food production is not possible without bees – and the fate of many other economically and environmentally-important plants and animals is linked to theirs. Of the 100 crop species that provide 90% of the world's food, over 70 are pollinated by bees.

The authors of the report call for farmers and landowners to be offered incentives to restore pollinator-friendly habitats, and for more care to be taken in the choice, timing and application of insecticides and other chemicals..

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP executive director, said: "The way humanity manages or mismanages its nature-based assets, including pollinators, will in part define our collective future in the 21st century.

"Human beings have fabricated the illusion that in the 21st century they have the technological prowess to be independent of nature. Bees underline the reality that we are more, not less dependent on nature's services in a world of close to seven billion people."

He is absolutely right. The profit monomania of capitalism, which is presented by governments, educators and neo-classical economic “experts” as the natural order of things, is in fact an unnatural disorder. Present social relations alienate us from nature, which is then exploited as a “resource”.

The labour of human beings transforms the natural resources provided by the eco-system into commodities for sale without regard to the consequences, which include climate change, the loss of species as well as the collapse of bee colonies. Reckless expansion in the name of the sacred cow of “growth” during the last 30 years has left the eco-system bereft and in many areas, close to collapse.

And rather than implementing the kinds of useful measures proposed by this report, capitalism is powering ahead with the global land grab and the expansion of industrial forms of agriculture to new areas. They are pushing humanity to many tipping points that can’t be ignored, including the disaster of a world with no pollinators.

This is the contradiction facing humanity – the eco-system, including human beings, can’t continue to exist if the capitalist mode of production continues to exist – and yet the conservative weight of the system’s ideology tell us there’s no alternative.

Resolving this contradiction is a must to enable humanity to make a leap to a different future based on ourselves as part of nature and not its enemy.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Supermarkets cash in as food prices soar

Food price inflation is running at a faster rate in Britain than in the rest of Europe – and supermarkets, which control around three quarters of grocery sales, are accused of driving prices up faster than is justified by rising costs, to protect their profits.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, food prices rose 6.3% in the year to the end of January, compared with an average of 2.8% for the EU and 2.6% across the 34 countries that make up the OECD.

Strangely enough, investment bank UBS says said UK consumers are suffering most from the pressures of food inflation. "Prices are rising in excess of justifiable cost increases," said Paul Donovan and Larry Hatheway, co-authors of a recent report. "The UK stands out as having the broadest range of food price increases."

World prices are also soaring. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's (FAO's) food price index averaged 236 points in February, a record, up 2.2% from January and rising for the eighth month in a row. The index highlights how food prices have taken off in alarming fashion in the last three years. In 2000 the index stood at 90 and did not break through 100 until 2004.

As one analyst put it: “What is extraordinary about this trend is that for more than two decades before 2008, there were no spikes of this magnitude. To be entering a second such spike within three years suggests that something has fundamentally changed in the global food situation.”

It was a more than doubling in the price of bread that put food beyond reach for many that helped trigger the wave of revolts in the Middle East and North Africa. Fearful that they will spread, governments around the world are assessing the likely political impact of food prices.

Campaigning organisations like the World Development Movement have joined the simplistic “blame the bankers” chorus, accusing them and hedge funds of speculating in food. But this is just one of the many interacting factors involved in the global crisis which can be summarised as peak soil and peak oil:

- thirty years of credit-financed rapid growth of global corporations have transformed much of agriculture into a destructive industrial process. Land, seed, machinery, oil-based fertilisers and pesticides are now subject to transnational corporate ownership and control

- exhaustion of the soil intensifies the demand for fossil-fuel based inputs and has accelerated the depletion of resources

- rapid depletion of the world’s supply of oil combined with concerns for the climate change it has produced has increased demand for alternatives. Profits from the production of biofuels now outcompetes the production of food

- Crop losses associated with weather extremes are increasing because of climate change

- the constant demand for consumption to absorb the products of economic growth has increased the standard of living in places like India and China

- capital’s need for unlimited quantities of cheap labour has driven population levels to rise to an estimated 9 billion in 2050-60.

The FAO is organising a series of seminars in an attempt to keep the lid on the rising anger. “FAO feels it is essential that countries consider their policy options and steer away from decisions that might exacerbate the situation," said deputy director-general Changchui He. "During the last food crisis, the situation was aggravated when some countries imposed export restrictions or engaged in panic buying."

But their solution is for more of the same. "Governments should focus on mitigating the impact of high food prices on the poor and at the same time need to take steps that favour investment in agriculture," he added. But the present framework is clearly unsustainable. A global network of farmers, processors, and distributors, planning the sustainable production of food according to the needs of the population and not profit has to be the way forward.

Gerry Gold

Economics editor

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Death by a thousand cuts

When the Coalition announced its spending review, arts writers warned of a new dark age of philistinism that would follow in the wake of government cuts in arts funding. They were right.

The harsh reality of the triple attack on culture in Britain is now becoming clear: the £19 million cut (30%) in the Arts Council funding; a 26% cut in local government funds; and the targeting of humanities and arts courses in higher education funding.

Local councils are taking desperate measures to try and keep their museums and galleries open. Bolton council has admitted it plans to auction off two Picasso etchings and paintings by outstanding artists including Millais, Sickert, Burne Jones from its collection. The council hopes to raise £500,000 from this sale.

Meanwhile Leicester council has already done the dirty deed. In its wisdom, the council has already offloaded 124 paintings, including one by the Camden Town school colourist Frederick Gore, “for a very modest £148,000, and have earmarked another 100 worth, they reckon, £50,000”.

As Simon Tait of Arts Industry noted yesterday: “ The fact that Leicester’s pictures were all in store, having been bought to show in the city’s schools, doesn’t mean they weren’t important; just that the municipality didn’t know what it had got - nor, probably, what it's got rid of for small change.”

And that is just it – selling off precious public assets for “small change”, just as Bury council did a few years back when it sold a Lowry from its collection, is an expression of total moral and political bankruptcy. In North Yorkshire, the council is cutting arts spending by 89%. In Somerset and Moray council funding arts organisations are being cut 100%. Moray Council was the first Scottish local authority to propose cutting its entire arts budget.

The response of Labour’s shadow culture secretary Ivan Lewis to the looming cultural dark ages, bleated out at a State of the Arts conference in February, is that a “new covenant” was needed so the strongest would support the weakest.

Tristram Hunt, historian and Labour MP for Stoke on Trent Central, shares Lewis’ abject “divide and rule” strategy, pitting the major cultural centres against the regions. Now he is demanding that top museums and galleries should start charging. If “American tourists and continental mini-breakers have no problem paying” entry fees elsewhere in Europe , he opines, “why not a fiver for London’s great galleries”. This, he claims astonishingly, is a “truly equitable” policy.

So museums must introduce a nationality test before admitting anyone? Or will there be a means test? The mind shudders. And all because Hunt like his New Labour colleagues shares the Coalition’s “there is no alternative” to the corporate business, profit-driven economic model.

Others argue that the way forward for the arts is for closer ties with business and more philanthropy. But a February report by Art and Business shows that 80% of FTSE 100 companies give nothing at all to the arts. Philanthropic giving has fallen by 17%. Business investment has fallen by 11%.

Many artists and arts administrators have spoken out to express their horror at what is happening. Turner prize-winning artist Anish Kapoor last week warned that it would take decades to recover from the damage caused by current cuts.

We should reject the death by a thousand cuts being promoted not only by the Coalition government but its so-called Labour opposition. What is required is an alternative, not-for-profit approach to the economy, in which art and culture are not viewed as a luxury or an “add-on” but as central to what makes us truly human.

Corinna Lotz

A World to Win secretary