Thursday, June 30, 2011

Pension funds in global farmland grab

Public sector pensions from across the globe are helping to drive up food prices by buying up farmland in poor countries as investments. And at least one local government pension fund in Britain is reportedly considering a similar move.

As hundreds of thousands of teachers, lecturers and civil servants strike today in defence of their pensions, the issue of what happens to their contributions is worth considering. A new report from GRAIN, the organisation that works to support small farmers and social movements, is extremely critical of some funds. GRAIN says:

Large scale agricultural land acquisitions are generating conflicts and controversies around the world. A growing body of reports show that these projects are bad for local communities and that they promote the wrong kind of agriculture for a world in the grips of serious food and environmental crises. Yet funds continue to flow to overseas farmland like iron to a magnet. Why? Because of the financial returns. And some of the biggest players looking to profit from farmland are pension funds, with billions of dollars invested.

The big picture shows that:

  • the largest institutional investors are planning to double their portfolio holdings in agricultural commodities, including farmland;
  • they are reportedly going to do it very soon;
  • the new surge in money will push up global food prices;
  • high food prices will hit poor, rural and working-class communities hard.

GRAIN estimates that pension funds have $23 trillion in assets, of which some US$100 billion are believed to be invested in commodities. Of this money in commodities, some $5–15 billion are reportedly going into farmland acquisitions. By 2015, these commodity and farmland investments are expected to double.

Pension fund managers see farmland as “a big attraction” for them with what they call . good "fundamentals". In this case, rising demand is driven by an increasing world population needing to be fed, and the resources to feed these people being finite.

“They see long-term pay-offs from the rising value of farmland and the cash flow that will in the meantime come from crop sales, dairy herds or meat production,” says GRAIN.

Pension funds in Britain are increasingly looking at getting involved in the farmland grab. According to reports, this includes the Merseyside Pension Fund which covers local government workers in the region. And it’s not as if the fund’s current investments are fine and dandy. The last published accounts reveal substantial investments in such corporations as tax-dodging Vodafone, notorious oil giants Shell and BP and a couple of major pharmaceuticals.

GRAIN wants trade unions to get involved campaigns for disinvestment in farmland and other agricultural commodities, saying: “Pension funds are supposed to be working for workers, helping to keep their retirement savings safe until a later date. For this reason alone, there should be a level of public or other accountability involved when it comes to investment strategies and decisions.”

But there are other questions and issues too. It is a paradox that workers’ contributions to pension funds are used to prop up capitalist corporations through share ownership. At the end of 2008, the latest figures available, show that pension funds owned nearly 13% of shares on the London stock market with funds of £150 billion (insurance companies used customers’ premiums to buy up another 13% by the way). A survey earlier this year showed that UK pension assets now amount to 76% of national income.

Using these funds and assets for social purposes, with new arrangements to ensure that the value of pensions is protected, instead of for profit or speculation in farmland, is surely an aspiration worth fighting for.

Paul Feldman

Communications editor

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Crisis is alll pain and no gain for workers

The crisis in Greece, which comes to a head today with the vote in parliament to impose further massive cuts, also marks four years since the mother of all financial bubbles burst.

The post-war expansion of credit that funded globalisation showed itself to be unsustainable when the effects of the credit crunch emerged into the open in 2007. Attempts to limit the effects of a global collapse of production with colossal amounts of credit invented by governments and central banks simply spread responsibility for the problem.

Toxic debt was in effect transferred from a failing system of global financial and manufacturing corporations to sovereign states which are, in turn, forcing it on to their increasingly resistant populations. In Greece, an estimated 80% are against “austerity” measures being forced through.

On a global scale, contradictory pressures are at work. Growth is giving way to contraction. The hard line views of the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) are in the ascendant, causing consternation amongst softer, liberal Keynesians, like Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, and Adam Posen, a member of the Bank of England’s influential Monetary Policy Committee

The real message from the BIS in its annual report published this week is precisely the opposite of a confident recovery. Challenges left in the aftermath of the 2007/8 crisis require further actions that will most certainly produce a severe contraction. That is what they are intended to achieve.

Challenges are grouped under several headings. At the top of the list is public sector debt. The BIS believes that governments have hardly begun bringing debt down to “sustainable levels”. In addition to short-term measures, pension schemes and social benefits will have to go. “Governments that put off addressing their fiscal problems run a risk of being punished both suddenly and harshly,” the report warns.

Next comes private sector debt. In the United States and Europe, households, financial and non-financial firms are still drowning in debt, despite millions of repossessions, massive write-offs, the disappearance of many financial and retail institutions, and mass unemployment across the world. Once again they’ve only made a start.

“Growth during the pre-crisis years was heavily weighted towards finance and construction. In a number of countries, these sectors grew disproportionately to the rest of the economy and now have to shrink. [emphasis added]. Like most adjustments, it will be painful in the short run. Not only will this reallocation impose suffering on the people who worked and invested in those sectors, it will weigh on aggregate growth and public revenues as well.”

The BIS sees the need for globally co-ordinated action to deal with “global imbalances in financial flows”. As the report states: “The financial crisis showed us that the build-up of gross investment positions can lead to substantial currency, liquidity and other mismatches that can propagate and magnify shocks, creating damaging volatility in the international financial system.”

But they are whistling in the wind if they think that governments have any more hope of controlling the movement of capital corporate interests after the crisis than before.

And then there’s the problem of monetary policy. “Unconventional actions” including negative real interest rates and quantitative easing – central banks inventing credit to lend money to governments - have led directly to soaring inflation, especially in food and fuel. The BIS “solution”? Monetary easing must be reined in and interest rates must rise – especially in the UK. As soon as they do house-buyers in Britain will be facing a tsunami of house repossessions.

Fixing the aftermath of the global capitalist crisis is too painful for countless millions to bear. The workers of Greece are saying they’ve had enough and are not prepared to sacrifice living standards further on the altar of creditors and their profits. Up to 750,000 workers in Britain go on strike tomorrow, defying both the ConDems and Labour, in defence of hard-won pensions which are being cut to reduce the budget deficit. The message is clear: We can’t be doing with this unsustainable, ruthless system any more.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Real democracy on the march

In a bold and inspired move, Spain’s Real Democracy Now! movement is taking the struggle to towns and villages throughout the country, so that the issues they have raised can be presented and developed by many more people.

The movement (DRY or M15) is organising marches from towns in the north, east, south and west of Spain: Valencia, Barcelona, La Rioja, Galicia and Andalucía. It is in line with the desire of the democracy campaigners to be as inclusive, to break down barriers and to have the widest possible debates about the way forward.

Two legs are already underway, with over 100 marchers setting off from Barcelona earlier this week. Despite soaring temperatures, the protesters hope to walk 21 kilometres each day. The Valencia route is around 500 kilometres long. The plan is for all the marches to arrive in Madrid on July 23 for a rally and the presentation of demands to parliament.

Last Friday, as the Spanish parliament passed new laws against the rights of unions, democracy collectives agreed to begin planning for a general strike on October 15 to coincide with other direct actions.

The M15 campaigners are not, however, asking the largest trade unions – the Unión General de Trabajadores (UGT) and Confederación Sindical de Comisiones Obreras (CCOO) to call strike action. They feel that these unions are too closely aligned with the Socialist Party (PSOE) government.

DRY has been holding rallies, assemblies and encampments in city centres since May. The occupation of Madrid’s Puerta Sol saw tens of thousands of demonstrators – young and old – gather to reject the country’s established political parties, the PSOE and the right-wing Popular Party (PP).

With slogans like “They don’t represent us”, and “Don’t Vote for Them”, the DRY movement denounced the privileges of the ruling elites, insisting that “the current status of our government and economic system does not take care of these rights and is in many ways an obstacle to human progress.”

Assemblies in Barcelona, Madrid and elsewhere have posted lists of demands ranging from greater democracy and political change to basic rights to jobs, quality of life, housing, public services, respect for the environment, reduced military spending and the abolition of the monarchy.

The call for a general strike poses the question of what such an action is for. Showing politicians and businesses that “if we stop, everything stops”, as a spokesperson from the M15 movement suggests, will not be sufficient to achieve the aims of the marchers. And, whilst rejecting their politically-compromised leadership, the members of the major unions cannot be ignored, if a general strike is to succeed.

A general strike as a protest – such as the two-day strike starting in Greece today – cannot by itself reverse the course of events, politically or economically. Both are inextricably linked and driven by a globalised crisis of the capitalist system of production as a whole.

Just as the unrepresentative political elites are inseparable from the system of private ownership of the means of production, so the financial system sits on top of the system of production for profit. Changing that means addressing the issue of ownership and power.

For true economic and political liberation, the issue of the state and power cannot be evaded. As A World to Win has noted: “The present state has to go and power has to change hands, from the minority to the majority, in revolutionary practice. Corporate and financial power could be co-owned and controlled and exercised through a network of people’s assemblies.”

In our view, that is the precondition for establishing real democracy now in place of the capitalist version that is discredited in the eyes of large sections of ordinary people. This is an urgent question because undoubtedly the far right is waiting in the shadows with own sinister plans of its own to “clean up democracy”.

Corinna Lotz

A World to Win secretary

Monday, June 27, 2011

Liberal imperialism rears its ugly head over Libya

Scratch a liberal and you’ll find just about any political disease you care to name. Just look at the Lib Dems’ contribution to the reactionary coalition. Or just read The Observer’s call for Nato to “up its game and finish what it started in Libya”.

In the true spirit of the 19th century “liberal” Lord Palmerston, notorious for his “gun-boat diplomacy” used to advance Britain’s imperial interests, The Observer is concerned at the slow progress after 100 days of bombing Libya under the guise of enforcing a no-fly zone.

So the answer, as far as The Observer is concerned, is not peace talks and a negotiated settlement between the two sides of an apparent civil war but for Nato to “abandon its limited, cautious, low-risk approach and flex far more of its muscle”. You can’t get more bellicose than that.

Apart from the appalling use of the word “game” to describe attacks that have cost many lives, the appeal to intensify the bombing only confirms that all is not well in the war camp.

The US Congress has voted to block President Obama from going any further in Libya as he never sought their approval in the first place as required under the US constitution. The Arab League is split following civilian casualties and even Italy has called for a cessation of bombing to allow humanitarian aide to get through.

On the ground, the so-called rebels are making little military progress and the self-appointed Interim Transitional National Council based in Benghazi is divided about what to do next. Some have suggested that Colonel Gaddafi could remain in the country but not in power, for example.

David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy, the prime movers in the bombing campaign, have discovered that the TNC is not exactly the rabid pro-Western alliance they dreamt would emerge. It contains discredited defectors from Tripoli, monarchists, militant Islamists and not a few opportunists.

To maintain a semblance of public support for the attacks, which have cost the British taxpayer about £260 million so far, Nato has, as usual, invented a series of mass rapes, genocide and assorted other atrocities to lay at the door of the Gaddafi regime. Amnesty International and others have discredited these lies.

The intervention in Libya has nothing to do with protecting civilians from the Gaddafi regime. He’s been persecuting them long enough with the tacit support of the US, Britain and France. Nor is it about delivering some abstract “democracy” to a Libyan or Arab people suffering under dictatorships because the Syrian, Saudi and Bahrain regimes have carte blanche to carry on killing. It’s not even particularly about access to Libya’s oil, which Western companies enjoy in any case.

What spurred Cameron (with Labour's backing) into action was a deep concern that the Arab Spring that swept away the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes was running out of control. Libya, with its brutal repression of its own uprising, seemed a good place to get a grip on the process.

The military intervention in Libya is aimed at delimiting the revolution’s direction and usurping the way it unfolds. It is a denial of Libya’s self-determination and, however cruel the Gaddafi regime has become, this is a good enough reason to oppose the bombing.

With Western influence diminishing as Egyptians renew their self-determination, Libya must have seemed a relatively easy way to establish a presence in the region. But, as the invasion and occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated, it is easier to make such plans than carry them out.

Even the killing of Gaddafi might only add to their problems. A report in the Daily Record suggests that British troops will be deployed if Gaddafi is ousted or killed. A Whitehall source told the paper: "I always find myself getting to my knees and praying to God that we don't bomb Gaddafi that night because what the f*** would we do next?" Cameron’s war could turn out to be his own political graveyard.

Paul Feldman

Communications editor

Friday, June 24, 2011

General strike is a defining moment

Union leaders threatening sustained and co-ordinated action, if there is no agreement with the government on pensions, intend to use what would amount to a general strike simply as a negotiating ploy. That is a serious, fatal miscalculation.

An indefinite general strike is a political weapon with revolutionary implications; the ruling classes understand this even if the bureaucrats at the Trades Union Congress and Unison general secretary Dave Prentis do not.

A general strike is a challenge to the state and its power, its authority and legitimacy. Looking at such action in any other way is dangerous and foolhardy. General strikes as protests have little effect, as the experience in Greece demonstrate.

You can be sure that the ConDem coalition is preparing to meet the challenge in the spirit of Stanley Baldwin, the Tory prime minister at the time of the historic 1926 General Strike. He famously declared: “Constitutional government is being attacked… The General Strike is a challenge to Parliament and is the road to anarchy and ruin.”

The TUC had threatened a General Strike as a negotiating tactic to try and prevent a cut in miners’ pay and a lengthening of their working day. But their bluff was called and the strike got under way on May 4 without any serious preparation. Baldwin refused to talk while the strike was on. But secret contacts were made and the strike was called off after nine days, with the miners abandoned to their fate.

Moving on to 2011, and we learn that secret talks are already taking place over public sector pensions, which the government intends to erode through higher contributions and making people work longer before entitlement. What is their to negotiate about, you may well ask?

Any changes to pension schemes can only be to their detriment. Take firefighters, for example. Currently most pay a massive 11% of their salaries into pensions, but that may rise to 14% under government plans. A survey of nearly 8,000 members of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) suggests that 27% are considering leaving if contributions rise.

In addition, most public sector workers have had their wages frozen, resulting in a pay cut due to inflation and tens of thousands are facing the sack because of spending cuts.

When Prentis talks of a “campaign of strike action without precedent” if the government fails to negotiate in “good faith”, we should be wary. Prentis is riding a tiger of a membership angry with its leaders for refusing to fight the cuts or oppose New Labour’s introduction of the private sector in the NHS.

Prentis boasted that unlike the miners’ strike of 1984, Unison members would not be starved back (the union has reportedly built up a £20 million strike fund). But the miners were not starved back. They were isolated by the TUC, who ran scared of Tory anti-union laws and refused to back the miners.

Nevertheless, the Coalition may call Prentis’ bluff and confront the trade union movement over pensions. The changes are central to the government’s spending cuts and part of the reorganisation of the state driven on by the capitalist crisis.

In 1926, between 400 and 500 Councils of Action emerged in the course of the General Strike. Made up of strikers and their supporters, they took responsibility for co-ordinating the strike, propaganda, communications, transport, entertainment, picketing and the delivery of food. They represented, in effect, the emergence of potentially alternative sites of power to the state at local level.

A showdown is coming with the ConDem government and the state. Of that there can be no doubt. Instead of waiting for it to blow up when the government chooses, trade unionists and their supporters ought to prepare for confrontation now and develop the Councils of Action approach.

They should take the initiative and create People’s Assemblies in each area, bringing together trade unionists with students, the unemployed, private sector workers, older people, community groups, small businesses, black and ethnic minority groups and everyone in government’s firing line. Assemblies can do what the union leaders won’t – take seriously the implications of a general strike and the question of who rules Britain.

Paul Feldman

Communications editor

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Rains expose China's crisis of ecology and economy

China's three-year drought has ended dramatically with torrential rains that have caused widespread flooding with a million people forced from their homes. The rains have also intensified the problems with the notorious Three Gorges dam project.

The worst-hit central and southern Chinese provinces are also the country's agricultural powerhouse. China is the world's biggest producer of rice and cotton, both water-hungry crops. The sight of reservoirs filling is welcome, but the floods have already destroyed at least 171,000 hectares of farmland.

In the province of Jiangxi the floods are the worst on record, and the economic losses are considerable. In Zhejiang province more than 4.4 million people have been affected.

There is flooding also in Hubei province, where the crisis-ridden Three Gorges Dam is located. The world's largest hydro-electric project was supposed to control flooding in the Yangtze River delta, but the reality has proved very different.

The Chinese government has admitted that the damn is facing “urgent problems”. Since the 1.5 mile barrier across the Yangtze River was completed in 2006, the reservoir has been plagued by algae and pollution. Because of the drought, water levels in reservoirs south of the barrier have been low. The operating company has been forced to open the sluice gates to ease the crisis, and as a result even the power generation targets have not been met.

The rains may ease the water crisis, but flooding is bad news for an area where it is said that the weight of extra water held back behind the reservoir is causing tremors, erosion and landslides.

More than 1,000 towns and villages were flooded to create the dam reservoir, with 1.4 million people forced to leave their homes and farmland. Now that number may double, as people are moved away from areas endangered by landslips. The whole topography, ecology and hydrology of the great Yangtze river has been destroyed by the dam project.

Many of these citizens will have ended up south of their old homes, in the province of Guangdong, with its megacities clustered round the now heavily-polluted Pearl River delta. It is the workshop of the work, for electronics, clothes, and plastics. Your watch and your jeans were probably made there.

And here, in the city of Zengcheng, just the kind of migrant workers who were displaced by the Three Gorges project are fighting running battles with police and the military. Protests started in the township of Xingtang after officials bullied two migrants, possibly street vendors, a man and his pregnant wife. She was pushed to the ground. Within hours thousands flooded on to the streets in mass demonstrations against the authorities.

Photos and video posted on the Internet show police cars and government offices being set alight. The authorities have cracked down with arrests, beatings and tear gas to disperse the crowds.

The tension is not just about ill-treatment of migrants, but reflects discontent amongst workers faced with unemployment and poverty. Factory orders have collapsed, ending Guangdong’s economic boom and causing huge social tensions. Some factory owners have simply disappeared, leaving workers owed months of back wages. This takes place at a time when the drought has caused a dramatic rise in food prices. Food price inflation in China this month is 11.7%.

Guangdong has 79 million permanent residents and 31 million migrants, who may not be registered but who live and work in the megacities of the Pearl River. They are the displaced landless, shaken off their land by rapid privatisation and industrial development.

Just as the combination of economic crisis and the ecological disaster of Chernobyl shook the bureaucracy of the Soviet Union out of power, so it will be in China, where a powerful revolutionary alliance of the urban and rural poor is being forged.

Penny Cole

Environment editor

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A dictatorship of capital in the home of democracy

The global “psychological operation”, aka psyops, that helped to secure last night’s vote of confidence in the Greek parliament for the hastily reorganised Pasok cabinet is a clear expression in its historical birthplace of the negation of democracy.

Massive demonstrations in Syntagma Square in front of Parliament, accompanied by general and other strikes have delivered that message. Yet all of the notions of the will of the people, all citizens having a say, equal participation, self-determination have melted into the air.

On the eve of the confidence vote “inspectors” from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank (ECB) arrived in Athens to reinforce the hurricane of warnings of the terrible consequences for Greece should it fail to adopt the prescribed measures.

These are designed to ensure that the monstrously, impossibly, unsustainably indebted country meet its obligations to other governments, banks and financial institutions.

These two unelected agencies represent the interests of the participants in the global financial system – the banks, hedge funds, bond dealers, speculators and gamblers in derivatives that stand to lose unimaginable sums of unearned, mostly imagined title to wealth.

And the pressure is certain to mount in the days running up to July 3, when the “socialist” government must vote – if the “international community” has its way – to make a new, even more severe assault on its own people who clearly can’t and won’t take any more.

Let’s not suggest for one moment that there’s a global conspiracy, that the psyops operators are acting according to an agreed plan, (although who knows what was discussed earlier this month at the annual Bilderberg meeting).

No conscious conspiracy is needed to excite the credit ratings agencies Moody’s and Standard & Poor, who’ve simply continued to do their job – putting a set of letters (CCC, the lowest) to the likelihood that Greece will be able to pay the interest on its debts - simultaneously ensuring that soaring interest rates put it into the realm of the impossible.

Nobody needs to tell the banks and investors who’ve lent to Greece that the only way to defer the looming global breakdown is to close down any drain on profitability, to eliminate public sector spending, to transfer whatever is left to the for-profit corporations.

But why is Greece’s debt so important that it has become the focus of world attention? Compared to the amount the US owes – its national debt is approaching $14 trillion – it hardly seems worth bothering about.

There are plenty of people talking of a new Lehman moment, a reference to its collapse in 2008 which triggered the present financial crisis. They are only too aware of the interconnected web of debt dependency that ties countries, corporations and populations.

German, French and British-based banks have massive holdings of Greek debt that would be worthless if a default takes place. And banks have so far only written off around half the vast overhang of fantasy finance created in the globalisation period from the 1980s onwards.

Where does Greece fit into all of this? It is the home for the world’s largest fleet of merchant ships. Close to 4,000 vessels, approximately one fifth of the world’s total, carry oil and many other commodities around the world in tankers and containers making a huge contribution to world trade.

With trade certain to collapse as it did in 2008 – when it plummeted by 90% – and tourism, Greece’s second largest source of income certain to fall as living standards in the rest of Europe decline, Greece hasn’t a hope of sustaining its repayments.

In 508BC, following a popular uprising, the government of Athens was reorganised around an assembly of all of the citizens. It was an early model of democracy. In the ferment of political discussion on the squares of cities, towns and villages of Greece, Cairo, and Madrid a new richer concept of democracy is emerging.

Its needs to embrace the ending of the dictatorship of capital over people’s lives and the principles of self-determination expressed, for the first time, through demos and kratos – people and power.

Gerry Gold

Economics editor

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Militarism comes to Obama's America

President Eisenhower, the general who led the D-Day operation in 1944, famously warned Americans in 1961 of the threat to democracy from an emerging “military-industrial complex”. He’d be astonished at what’s going on 50 years later, where a new kind of complex has a seat at the top table.

Its beating heart is a secretive intelligence network which is now reckoned to constitute a fourth arm of government – after the executive (president), judicial and legislative (Congress). According to the Washington Post, this world of smoke and mirrors comprises over 1,200 government agencies and almost 2,000 private companies in more than 10,000 locations across the country. Its annual budget is $80 billion. There are an astonishing 845,000 people with top secret clearance.

This is but one arm of globalised counter-insurgency warfare. Conn Hallinan, a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus, a progressive US-based think tank, says: “The assassination of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden did more than knock off U.S. Public Enemy Number One. It formalised a new kind of warfare, where sovereignty is irrelevant, armies tangential, and decisions are secret.”

Congress is consigned to the role of spectator while the “situation room” at the White House takes over. Who can forget the photos of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton watching as special forces went into Pakistan to kill Osama Bin Laden. Pakistan’s protests at the violation of its airspace were brushed aside.

Hallinan notes: “Although clandestine warfare is not new, the boldness of the bin Laden hit is. Certainly the people who planned the attack wanted to make a statement: We can get you anywhere you are, and impediments like international law, the Geneva Conventions, and the UN Charter be damned.”

The merging of intelligence and military operations in the US is about to take off in a big way. General David Petraeus, head of international forces in Afghanistan, is tipped to be Obama’s nomination as the new head of the Central Intelligence Agency after the present incumbent is confirmed as the administration’s new defence secretary.

In their analysis of the militarisation of America, William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel and Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, insist:

“Think of all this as a kind of mix-and-match version of war that increasingly integrates civilian branches of the government like the State Department, an ever more warlike CIA (once known as ‘the president’s private army’), the regular Army, Marines, and Air Force, ever-growing drone air power (split between an officially civilian intelligence agency and the military), and a secret combined military force of perhaps 20,000 special operatives.

In his article How the Military and the Civilian Are Blurring in Washington, Astore relates the “fairy tale” of a “fabled land”, a representative democracy whose foundational principles included civilian control of the military and a system of checks and balances. That has disappeared, says Astore:

“Instead, at the highest levels, what’s civilian and what’s military are increasingly difficult to tell apart as the two spheres blur and blend. Today, civilian control of the military is largely a principle without a meaning, while inside Washington’s Beltway, even with a scorecard it’s hard to tell the players apart. In the process, the military has gained a kind of unspoken and distinctly un-American primacy …

“There’s a word for this disease, even if after all these years it remains remarkably foreign to American ears: militarism. When Americans think of that word, they tend to conjure up images of fanatical jackbooted Nazis or suicidal Japanese kamikazes, and so the concept seems eminently dismissible. But militarism also describes a situation in which a country’s civil society and political culture are permeated to the point of dominance by military attitudes and values – an undeniable fact of life, I would argue, in America today.”

What is happening in America is a warning to people everywhere. The state is not just the plaything of the corporations but increasingly the military too. As the crisis of capitalism deepens, and markets become increasingly competitive, the lurch to full-blown militarism/nationalism will become more pronounced.

Paul Feldman

Communications editor

Monday, June 20, 2011

In memory of Brian Haw

A World to Win salutes the uncompromising determination of Brian Haw, who became a symbol, not only for the anti-war movement, but for the basic democratic right to demonstrate and protest. His death from cancer at only 62 robs us of an unbending voice and symbol of resistance to the state.

Haw began his vigil directly outside the House of Commons on June 2, 2001 to protest against the UN-NATO sponsored sanctions on Iraq on June. He said he would stay there “as long as it took”. The carpenter from Essex, also a father of seven, used a megaphone to denounce war-mongering politicians. He survived on donations from supporters.

His campaign against what he termed the genocide of Iraq’s children took on a new meaning after the September 11 twin tower attacks in New York. New Labour joined the United States to invade Afghanistan not long after. In March 2003, Britain and the United States attacked Iraq, a war which ultimately led to hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths, with many more fleeing into exile to avoid the ensuing violence.

Over the years, Haw was joined by supporters and campaigners including the Global Peace Strike, Democracy Village and fellow camper and hunger striker Maria Gallastegui, who was arrested for reading out the names of dead British soldiers outside the Cenotaph. Embarrassed by the vocal protests, Blair’s government sought to change the law to end Haw’s protest.

In 2003, House of Commons procedure committee recommended the law be changed to prohibit “unlicensed” protests in the square. The committee’s proposals were incorporated in the 2005 Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA) which, despite its name, gave the police vastly increased powers to remove protesters.

On one occasion Haw was injured by a police officer who shoved Haw’s camera into his face and then forced him to the ground. In 2006, 54% of Channel Four television viewers voted Haw the most politically inspiring figure of the year. Haw used the prize-giving ceremony to demand support for his campaign to put an end to the genocide and the looting. “It’s about oil, it’s about the arms industry,” he said.

In 2007 police removed all of Haw’s placards but one and arrested him under SOCPA. He was acquitted under a technicality a year later, but continued to be harassed by not only the police, but by the Greater London Authority under Mayor Boris Johnson. At the time of his death, Haw was still battling the authorities for the right to stay in Parliament Square.

Haw inspired artist Mark Wallinger who recreated his array of banners and placards and installed them in the Tate Gallery. Wallinger went on to receive the Turner Prize for his “State Britain”, which pointed to the severe restrictions imposed on the right to demonstrate in Westminster.

Haw sought to name and shame the successive Parliaments which approved the decisions made without reference to any democratic procedures to go to war. He hoped that his moral stand would inspire others to put an end to wars for profit, oil and political careers

The truth is that attacks on sovereign states by major capitalist powers are endemic to the economic and political system we live under and are used by desperate leaders of all parties. Yesterday’s admission by NATO that they bombed a residential area in Tripoli killing nine civilians provides more evidence if any is needed.

Haw’s marathon protest and sacrifice should be not only make us to mourn his passing and celebrate his achievement. It must be an incentive to unmask the sham façade that is misnamed democracy and create in its place a real alternative based on the needs of ordinary people.

Corinna Lotz

A World to Win secretary

Friday, June 17, 2011

How we can defend pensions

There is a common thread between the upcoming strikes in defence of public sector pensions in Britain and the slow-motion car crash that is Greek political economy. In both countries, the state is saying it can’t pay, won’t pay.

In Britain, pensionable age is rising to 66 and even higher thereafter. Against a background of people living longer and tax revenues in decline, we have to work longer, perhaps until we drop. Public sector pension contributions are going to rise steeply, with retirement age being pushed back for most, treasury secretary Danny Alexander has announced.

In Greece, as state bankruptcy looms, pensions have already been slashed along with public sector salaries and just about anything else the “socialist” Pasok government can get its hands on. As a result, the government has lost its legitimacy and authority. Will the Greek generals step in as they have done before?

The state in both countries is the national voice of a global capitalist system in profound crisis. In Britain, the budget deficit produced by the banking crash and recession has spurred on the drive to cut spending on pensions, education, welfare and public sector jobs.

Deepening the problem is the fact that during the globalisation period, tax take from the corporations has declined as a share of national income (GDP). In 1985, tax on corporate incomes in the UK was about 4.75% of GDP; by the end of 2005 it had fallen to under 3.5%. The figure has fallen throughout the European Union since 2000.

The burden of funding state spending has therefore increasingly fallen on wage earners and consumers. As real wages have fallen in Britain, with increasing numbers working part-time, and people have reduced their spending, so receipts have come under further pressure.

The secret talks between Britain’s trade union leaders and the Coalition government over pension “reform” are meaningless in this situation. Either the union bureaucrats are going to fight or make a rotten deal with one of the weakest governments for a long time.

But what should be the aim of the resistance, which has driven teachers, lecturers and civil servants to a one-day strike on June 30? The state can’t compromise because there is no room for a deal. In the market capitalist state that Britain has become, the public sector is unsustainable.

It would take the creation of an entirely different set of social, economic and political conditions to reverse the attacks on pensions, services and jobs. Relying on corporations to pay more tax is unrealistic under globalisation and asking workers and consumers to share more of the burden – as the government is doing – is reactionary.

However, if the economy were socialised, owned and run not in the interests of shareholders and lenders but those determined by society as a whole, then a different basis for public spending could be established. Instead of taxation as a source of state revenue, we could use the surplus created by economic activity for social purposes.

Under capitalism, this surplus is used to fund massive bonuses and executive salaries, pay off lenders and keep dividends flowing. Tax avoidance is, of course, de rigueur. In a not-for-profit economy, the “dividend” would end up in the hands of a democratic state dedicated to providing for social need.

We should not accept, as some trade union leaders have already done, that they “understand” the pensions’ deficit and that action is required to deal with it. The fight is for a more developed society that enables people to retire young enough to enjoy their lives and fulfil personal development. As capitalism can’t and won’t do that, the battle for the alternative is on – both in Greece and Britain.

Paul Feldman

Communications editor

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Rain forest activists put their lives on the line

The survival of the world's eco-system is tied to the survival of rain forests, but those fighting to protect them are being systematically slaughtered. Everyone working to defend the Amazon from illegal activities knows their lives are in danger.

Loggers, ranchers and big farmers have organised the killing of more than 1,150 rural activists since the assassination of Chico Mendes, the Brazilian trade union leader and environmentalist in 1988.

Now Obede Lovia Souza has become the sixth forest activist killed this month alone. He was a 31-year-old family man, a member of the settlement of Esperanca, which occupied unused farmland in the Amazon in 2008.He was shot dead and his body dumped in the forest.

The loss of the Amazon would tip the global climate into chaos but the Brazilian government has a schizophrenic position in relation to it. Brazil has invested resources to prevent illegal logging, and is bringing in a new legal framework for protection. But its commitment to continued rapid agricultural development actually benefits from logging. Once an area is cleared of timber, the ranchers move in.

And now there have been huge finds of oil in the Amazon basin and the question is whether the Brazilian government will allow these to be exploited whilst preventing the Amazon basin suffering the same ecological fate as the Niger delta.

In Guatemala, the drug barons and ranchers have been working together to cut down the world's second-largest area of rain forest. More than a fifth of the 2.1m acres has been burned and cleared by settlers working for drug barons. Hundreds of airstrips have been carved out for the use of small planes delivering cocaine as close to the Mexican border as possible, where it completes the journey by road.

The Guatemalan government of the 1960s encouraged forest clearance and settlement, but the present government claims to want to protect it for the benefit of tourism and the environment. As a result, some of those early settlers are being forced out with no alternative land to farm. It is little wonder they choose the protection of the drug barons, working with them to clear land where the government's writ doesn't run.

The government of Ecuador has adopted an entirely different approach, forging a ground-breaking agreement with the UN, whereby it will not exploit oil finds in the Yasuni National Park in return for $3.6bn of international funding. This amount is only a fragment of the value of almost a billion barrels of oil, but the initiative is now foundering, as Germany announced it is going back on a pledge to contribute $50m to the scheme.

The reality is that the dirtiest end of capitalist production - illegal logging, drug dealing, oil extraction - continues to rule in the forests. Some governments are unable to stop it and others are complicit. The UN's 2011 declaration of the Year of the Forest is turning out to be a sad farce. The text adopted by the UN Forest Forum is entirely non-binding, and will not make any difference at all. The rate of destruction in the Amazon has actually speeded up this year.

Quite apart from being the key to regulating the world's climate, rain forests may contain not only plants that potentially cure disease, but also the food crops that could address increasing hunger as the climate changes and existing food crops fail. It is estimated that we are currently using only 7,000 of the 75,000 edible rainforest plants.

Indigenous people are courageously putting their lives on the line to protect this resource for us all. Since our survival is linked to the forest's continued existence we must find ways to ensure the victory of these front-line troops in the battle against climate change.

Penny Cole

Environment editor

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Greece edges closer to the brink

Greece is closer than ever before to social breakdown as the Pasok “socialist” government struggles to force through yet more austerity measures demanded by lenders, including the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund.

The credit rating agencies which assess each country’s health have now driven their assessment of Greece to the lowest in the world, because its now crumbling government has, as yet, been unable to impose a sufficiently brutal assault on its people.

Some Pasok MPs are refusing to vote for a new round of cuts, while the right-wing parties are opposing them for their own reasons. Another 24-hour general strike today brought the country to a halt while thousands of activists and unionists converged on Athens' central Syntagma Square on the parliament's front steps to try to prevent deputies from debating the measures.

"Thieves, traitors!" many chanted. "Where did the money go?" "I feel rage and disgust," said 45-year old public sector worker Maria Georgila, a mother of two. "These are very tough measures and they won't get us out of the crisis. I can't believe they have no alternative."

Daily mass protests have drawn hundreds of thousands of people on to the streets in every town throughout the country. They have rejected pleas from prime minister George Papandreou that it is his patriotic duty to make the cuts. Demands raised include a call for Greece to default on its massive foreign loans, to leave the euro and return to the drachma and for the replacement of the current political system with direct democracy.

New cuts would increase the size of unemployment, which is already at a record 16% and deepen a recession now into its third year. The Greek economy shrank by a further 5.5% in the year to March 2011, household consumption contracted 7.8%, while investment was down 19%.

The Greek protests are directed at the government, but behind it stands something much more threatening. Yesterday the finance ministers of the eurozone under pressure from the ECB failed to agree on a proposal to force private investors to share the cost of a further bailout by extending the period of their loans to the bankrupt country.

The ECB fears the wrath of “the markets”, the private investors who lend on the expectation of a fat return for their money. Also concerned are major European banks who stand to suffer if Greece defaults on its loans. The banks have Greek debt on the asset side of their balance sheets and a write-off would be catastrophic.

Across the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, the rapidly developing global capitalist crisis has driven millions of people, young and old into action against a system of governments – both autocratic and parliamentary – which became established during the post-1945 rebuilding of capitalist production.

In Britain, public sector unions, including teachers and civil servants, are set for the largest day of strike action for a generation at the end of the month over pensions and job losses. It’s a welcome start, but as the experiene of Greece shows, strikes by themselves cannot push back the waves of the deepening crisis.

During half a century, the inexorable logic of capitalist growth demanded international agreements which enabled the emergence of increasingly powerful global manufacturing, trading, property-owning and financial corporations. Their “rights” are established in contracts backed by international treaties more powerful than the laws of any country.

Ending their power over people’s lives is the key to finding a solution. To respond to Maria Georgila, “they” actually do not have an alternative. “We”, however, can proceed to build people’s assemblies and establish a new global economy and politics based on social ownership, democratic control and not-for profit sustainable production for need.

Gerry Gold

Economics editor

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A one-party state for the rich

Shocked or surprised at Ed Miliband equating those struggling on benefits in the absence of jobs at decent wages with bankers and executives whose salaries resemble telephone numbers? You shouldn’t be.

Miliband’s speech on “responsibility” yesterday was only the latest in a long line of pronouncements and actions that marked the definitive end of Labour as a party dedicated to defending workers’ interests and reforming capitalism.

Even so, it was sickening to hear Miliband declaim: “To those entrepreneurs and business people who generate wealth, create jobs and deserve their top salaries, I’m not just relaxed about you getting rich, I applaud you.”

Joining in the open season on welfare claimants, Miliband couldn’t help himself and added: “We will be a party that rewards contribution, not worklessness.” People had to take work if it was on offer rather than claim benefits. And, in future, social housing should only go to those who “contribute” to society.

In over 3,000 words of his speech, he never once referred to unemployment as an issue at a time when the dole queue is heading for 10%. And, of course, he declined to use those two “C” words – class and capitalism. He did, however, find time to quote Blair on patriotism.

Worse, he invoked the wartime service of his father, Ralph, to whip up patriotic and nationalist sentiments about “community”. This is shockingly dishonest too because Ralph Miliband was regarded as a Marxist and wrote critiques of Labour and reformism in books like Parliamentary socialism. No doubt Ralph is turning in his proverbial grave this morning.

Ed Miliband is the latest in a long line of leaders of a party that made its unconditional peace with capitalism a long time ago. The die was cast as far back as the Callaghan government in the late 1970s, when the government went cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund. The attacks on wages that followed led to mass industrial action and the end of Old Labour as we knew it.

The context for parliamentary politics that enabled post-war Labour governments to create the health service and the welfare state changed in a qualitative way in this period. After prolonged class struggles, deregulated, free market globalisation emerged. This demanded flexible, cheap labour and shifting production from advanced to developing economies.

The basis for old-style reformist politics disappeared almost overnight. And out of this train crash came New Labour. The rise of Blairism was not therefore, as is often mistakenly assumed, simply a rightward move or a policy decision aimed at winning elections by capturing the “middle ground”.

More than that, it was a recognition and an acceptance that capitalism had changed and that the best could hoped for in future was for wealth to “trickle down” from the top to the bottom. Instead, cheap credit fuelled unsustainable consumption that globalisation called for. The rest, as we know, is history.

The Miliband speech was hailed by the miserable Fabian Society, whose research director Tim Horton said “some on the left may feel queasy about this. But they should understand its logic and cheer it.” Frank Field, the right-wing Labour MP who favours the break-up of the benefits system also hailed Miliband’s speech.

As one comment on Horton’s article, put it: “We now have a one party state, a political class which acts as an administrator of corporate excess, to facilitate resources from poor to rich.” A one-party state is a dictatorship in anyone’s language and that is what we have in a coalition of Tories, Lib Dems and Labourites. Overthrowing dictatorships, of course, is an entirely legitimate social activity.

Paul Feldman

Communications editor

Monday, June 13, 2011

The 'enemy within' has a new face

With official opposition to the government’s policies virtually non-existent, the only significant criticism of the Coalition is coming from areas of the establishment usually seen as traditional supporters.

People like the leader of the Church of England and institutions like Oxford and Cambridge have taken up the cudgels against unbridled market capitalism while Labour leader Ed Miliband is happy to attack the poor who depend on state benefits.

When the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, as a guest editor of the New Statesman, wrote that “with remarkable speed we are being committed to radical, long-term policies for which no one voted” and that “at the very least, there is an understandable anxiety about what democracy means in such a context”, the government had to respond quickly and with all guns blazing.

The archbishop did more than expose the cruelty of a few cuts; he cast doubt on the legitimacy of the government and with it the charade of bourgeois democracy. And the holy man went on to declare that the big society was viewed with “widespread suspicion”, that the coalition was facing “bafflement” and “indignation” over its plans to reform the health service and education, and so on.

This is a challenge to the fundamentals that underpin the system itself and is not so easily brushed off. A further instance of government policies stirring up its own people to rebellion took place at Oxford University where academics and tutors voted for a motion of no confidence in the higher education minister David Willetts by a landslide majority (283-5).

At the meeting they lined up to attack plans to instigate a market in universities. Willetts, in his annual speech to vice chancellors ten days before, had said the government’s ambition was to make the new higher education framework “as de-regulatory as we can”, with the emphasis on increasing competition.

Bernard Sufrin, computing scientist, conjured up “the spectre of the private, for-profit university” at the Oxford gathering. Professor of English David Norbrook argued that academics were being forced to speak a language “that we all know doesn’t honestly represent what we do and what we believe in but which we speak because it is the price of funding”.

Adbel Takriti, a tutor at St Edmund Hall, called the plans “ill-articulated and incoherent”. The unity between academics and students (who were demonstrating outside) was evident when David Barclay, president of the student union, said that “the marketised core of the government’s plans is rotten, and will turn our successors into those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing”. Other university academics will hold their own meetings, and they are not likely to be much different. Thousands are signing the no-confidence web-sites

What is most remarkable about this revolt-from-within is the emphasis on the “loss of community” and “collective life” that the commercialisation/privatisation plans imply. A growing opposition turning everything into a commodity for sale is becoming more articulate, more focused on the ideas behind the policies.

Even more scary for the government is the fact this opposition does not come from within Parliament or from the trade unions. Ministers are forced to turn and face a growing number of jabs in the back from unexpected quarters, from people who would normally refrain from direct criticism, from those who do not respect the rules of the parliamentary game.

In a newspaper article, Barclay and two academics wrote: “The model of organising resistance to this degradation of collective life can already be seen, honeycombed throughout the country”. Indeed it can, amongst doctors, teachers, nurses, civil servants and many other groups of professional workers facing cuts, job losses and the destruction of services.

The creation of People’s Assemblies, to bring together all sections of the community into united opposition to government plans, is a natural next step. Building a network of assemblies around a strategy of transferring political and economic power into the hands of the majority would offer a real alternative to the status quo.

Peter Arkell

Friday, June 10, 2011

Power vacuum in Yemen's 'endless revolution'

Inspired by the ousting of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, people have massed on the streets of Yemen since February in their “Endless Revolution”. They have defied government forces, including plain-clothes thugs acting for the regime, despite the martyrdom of at least 350 protesters.

When the badly wounded dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh was wafted to Saudi Arabia after the June 3 rocket attack on the presidential complex, crowds of Yemenis celebrated his departure in Change Square in Sanaa, and Freedom Square in the southern city of Taiz.

For a poignant moment, they could revel in the knowledge that their months of sacrifice had not been in vain – and give their country’s Roman name Arabia Felix ‘happy Arabia’ a real meaning.

Speaking in Taiz, activist Wassem al Gorashi hailed the sacrifice of anti-regime protesters, saying: “On behalf of the free revolutionaries and all the noble people of the nation, we send you our sincere congratulations. We start with all of our martyrs, and then we congratulate all the rebels in different squares and all the Yemeni people. We congratulate you for the departure of the head of the arrogant regime. This day will be marked in history as one of the greatest days in Yemen.”
They were heartened by the news that In Taiz, the Khalid Bin Walid barracks, the largest barracks in the city, defected over the weekend. Central security forces have also completely pulled out of the city's streets, though the Republican Guard still maintains a presence.

For most people, Yemen is just a place on the map – the southern-most tip of the Arabian peninsula, sharing a long border with Saudi Arabia. But it has long been known first for its fertility and stupendous architecture and town planning.

Unfortunately for its citizens, in the 20th century Yemen became a strategic hotspot, due to its location dominating the straits between the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea and proximity to the world’s biggest oil producer, Saudi Arabia.

The southern port of Aden was occupied by the British forces in 1839 largely to protect their shipping interests. It became Britain’s main base in the area after the loss of the Suez canal in 1956. After four years of anti-colonial insurgency and civil strife, the British departed in 1967, leaving a divided country in their wake. The 1990 unification of south and north Yemen under Ali Abdullah Saleh – and his 32-year rule - have left many southerners feeling they were unfairly treated by the south and civil war broke out in 1994.

Taking advantage of the tensions, Al Qaeda began operations in 1992. Around 300 Al-Qaeda fighters are thought to operate from the South, making it a major target for US drones and bombers.They have strongholds in the mountainous areas and, despite US bombardment, Al Qaeda militants in the south of the country seized the provincial capital of Zinjibar only yesterday.

Although it now wants him not to return home, the United States has been desperately propping up the Saleh regime for years, supplying it with military aid to the tune of $140 million in 2010. In the past they saw Saleh and his cronies as allies in the “war against terror”.

Lara Aryani, reporting from Sana’a for Jadaliyya, has warned of the manoeuvring “of the elites, by the elites and for the elites”, including the opposition party coalition, the Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), which, she says has thrust itself into the middle of negotiations with the regime (which the protesters have refused) as if it represents or even understands the demands of the protesters and the necessary changes that would cause the protests to dissipate.”

Ousting Saleh – who imposed the World Bank and IMF’s “Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility” – on his people, is only be the beginning of clearing out the elites under whom the people of Yemen have been suffering for so long. The time for Yemenis to decide their own fate, free of the interests of Washington, Saudi Arabia, Al Qaeda and their own greedy elites must come soon.

Corinna Lotz

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Market mechanisms for nature lead to disaster

Instead of being subtitled "securing the value of nature", the government's new environment White Paper should be called "securing profits from nature".

Disguised by many thousands of pious words, it simply underlines the importance to capitalism of the commodification of the eco-system.

Adopting a profit-driven interpretation of last week's interesting report, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, it confirms that the government will have no active role in nature conservation. Instead it is handing it over to the private sector.

There is no more than a nod to new networks of local partnerships, with no funding and no statutory powers. A paltry £7.5m is being made available for local partnerships to "compete" to create one of 12 new-style conservation areas.

The ConDem coalition had already let the cat out of the bag on their true perspective when they announced plans to privatise the Forestry Commission’s holdings.

You might say, it isn't just about money – but isn't that exactly what last week's report said it was about? That nature has a value, which must be accounted for in land use and economic planning?

But the White Paper makes clear that the national planning policy framework to be published later this year will focus on growth, growth and more growth – at any cost.

This underlines the inherent weakness of the whole concept of leaving the conservation of nature to the tender mercies of the capitalist market. Nature may have a value but you can't make it profitable! Quite the opposite, in fact.

As nature (or as the White Paper calls it "natural services") becomes “scarcer” it must, by definition, become more profitable. That is why the global market in agricultural land is booming and the mineral and timber commodity markets soaring.

The White Paper states: "The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity study shows that protected natural areas can yield returns many times higher than the cost of their protection. There are multi-million pound opportunities available from greener goods and services, and from markets that protect nature’s services."

What this will mean in practice is that the government will try to find ways to ensure that private business uses opportunities for profit taking. Ministers will "publish an action plan to expand markets and schemes in which payments are made by the beneficiary of a natural service to the provider of that service". Landowners are rubbing their hands with glee!

And they will also set up a “business-led Ecosystem Markets Task Force to review the opportunities for UK business from expanding the trade in green goods and the market for sustainable natural services".

They are not talking here about supporting exports of charming wood furniture or eco-friendly clothes - and they have already destroyed the UK's chance of leading in renewable power technology. They are talking about nuclear power, shale gas, and the trade in carbon credits.

This idea of using “green economics” – the valuation of nature – as a foundation for protecting the eco-system was being discussed at the UN in New York this week. Bolivia's ambassador Pablo Solon summed up the problem perfectly:

The creation of new market mechanisms for nature, the development of a market for environmental services, will bring us toward a collapse. We believe it is wrong to break down nature into simple environmental services subject to economic valorization and market exchange. The laws of the market, of supply and demand, are in conflict with the laws and natural cycles of the Planet Earth.

The concept of building "whole earth costs" into planning can only contribute to the protection of eco-systems when it is part of a global not-for-profit economic system.

Penny Cole

Environment editor