Wednesday, February 27, 2013

US heads for 'slow motion train wreck' over debt crisis

If you thought Italy had sovereign debt issues, you should take a look at the United States. Total public debt this week stands at nearly $17,000 billion, equivalent to 75% of the value of the country’s annual output.

Half is owned by foreign investors, principally China and Japan. They are understandably nervous. The once mighty dollar has fallen in value by 10% against major trading partners’ currencies since 2009.  

Good news for US exporters but bad news for those holding dollar-denominated debt. Some suggest that the declining dollar is part of a covert global currency war as the major capitalist nations desperately seek a trading edge over their rivals.  

But the US federal debt mountain is about to come crashing down on the heads of ordinary Americans. Barring a last-minute deal uniting the bitterly divided American political class, a 10-year programme of cuts in federal government spending, known as “the sequester”, is about to kick in.

Amounting to $1.2 trillion dollars, the automatic trigger mechanism is the result of a decision by Congress in 2011 which was itself a compromise. The Budget Control Act was the flip-side of a deal that allowed the self-imposed limit on federal debt to be raised.

At the time it was argued that the effects of the automatic cuts would be so unacceptably severe that the Congress would be sure to do something to avert them. They’ve been delayed as much as was allowable, but the debt crisis has worsened inexorably as the global contraction has tightened its grip, and time’s up.

According to the Bipartisan Policy Centre, “sequestration’s effect will be akin to that of a slow motion train wreck. The uncertainty has already impacted economic growth, and while there won’t be a sudden ‘cliff that occurs on March 1, the ramifications will steadily worsen as time passes.”

Cuts for the seven months remaining in the 2013 financial year amounting to $85 billion will be spread equally between defence and domestic programmes.  Getting a clear understanding of the full impact of the cuts on people’s lives and the effects on the services they provide and receive, is proving difficult.

These are just a few of the expected headliners for this, the first part-year of a – and I repeat - ten year programme of shrinkage:

  • Economic growth (GDP) will be reduced by 0.5%
  • Between 700,000 and 1 million jobs will disappear
  • 800,000 defence department civilian employees face enforced unpaid leave of 20% equating to one day a week.
  • $600 million to be cut from the Federal Aviation Administration mean that thousands more will be forced to take unpaid leave.
  • The cuts could lead to the closing of hundreds of air traffic control towers
  • 600,000 low-income people receiving help from the Women, Infants and Children programme may lose out
  • Up to 70,000 children from low-income families could lose access to the Head Start programme
  • military veterans and dependents of an active service member could be denied elective medical care    
  • thousands of teachers and aides could lose their jobs, and many special education and pre-school programmes could disappear.

Obama’s administration is in favour of reducing spending but wants to do it differently, with a deal on tax increases for the wealthy – fiercely opposed by the Republicans and the Tea Party. Tax cuts for the rich introduced by President Bush were permanently extended as part of the deal which temporarily averted the “fiscal cliff” at the beginning of the year.

Even with the sequester, the impact on long-term debt growth is forecast to be small. The federal debt will continue to grow, until eventually reaching 100% of GDP.

Warning to the American people: expect worse; much, much worse!

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Pesky voters ignore markets, vote against austerity

When an anti-austerity, anti-establishment internet-based political movement with few policies and led by a comedian, gets 25% of the vote in a general election, you know for sure that the political system is travelling on a one-way ticket to disintegration.

Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement (M5S) won 54 seats and cashed in on Italians’ hatred for a corrupt, incompetent state that has cut their pensions, living standards and left record numbers of young people out of work.

Deadlock is what the markets didn’t want. That’s why Mario Monti was appointed by the European Central Bank to head a caretaker government 15 months ago as Italy’s debt mountain threatened to overwhelm the euro. But given half a chance, the electorate rejected his policies.

The ex-Goldman Sachs banker only got 10% of the vote when he put his austerity programme to the electorate. And with Silvio Berlusconi also raging against Brussels and promising everyone a tax cut, many voters backed a man who has somehow evaded prison.

As a result there is no immediate prospect of a stable government to manage Europe’s third largest economy. And the markets don’t like the stalemate at all. After initial polls showed the centre-left alliance winning, the markets rallied.

Then when the electoral deadlock was confirmed, black turned to red on trading screens around the world. Italian bonds were sold off, trading in the major banks was suspended, the stock markets plunged and the euro crisis returned with a vengeance.

“This looks like a recipe for total gridlock,” commented Nicholas Spiro, a sovereign debt analyst. “On current projections, financial markets are facing the worst of both worlds in Italy: a full-blown political crisis in the eurozone’s third largest economy and a severe setback for the liberal economic agenda championed by Mr Monti.”

Pesky voters!

Enrico Letta, deputy leader of the Democrat party, concluded that the “absolute majority of Italians have voted against austerity measures, the euro and Europe,”.  This, he claimed, sent a “a very clear signal to Brussels and Frankfurt”.

But is anyone listening at the headquarters respectively of the European Union and the European Central Bank? No they’re not. The EU and the ECB is desperately to prop up a weak currency and austerity, austerity and yet more austerity is the mantra. No matter that it doesn’t work. They have no alternative.

Spending your way out of the crisis is no good because it’s a global economic recession that is already dependent on large-scale printing of money to prevent a full-blown depression. It’s not just the political system that’s broken.

Grillo’s Five Star Movement is hostile to Brussels and the indecently corrupt Italian establishment. It wants to reform parliament by halving its size and a new electoral law based on proportional representation. Other than that, it has little to say.

Grillo – called everything from “sans-culotte satirist” to “populist, extremist and very dangerous” –  hands it back with interest. His nickname for Berlusconi is “the psycho-dwarf”, while he refers to the technocrat Monti as “rigor Montis”.

Grillo told the Financial Times last year: “We are occupying a void, which in other places like Greece has been filled by Nazis and extremists. We are a response to government ‘parasitism’, corruption, a system of political diarrhoea.” Recent scandals include arrests at the top of state-controlled Finmeccanica to corruption probes into the Eni and Italy’s third-largest bank.

Grillo does not appear on television or take part in debates. His movement – it’s definitely not a party – is driven by the use of social media. He runs Italy’s most-read blog and the M5S organises on two levels – internet and local grassroots.

He used the social network “meetup”, which was already active in Italy, to set up local support groups across the country. There are now more than 700 such meetup groups, with more than 100,000 members.

In Britain too, the establishment and the state is also mired in a variety of scandals. The old politics is dying right across Europe and further afield as the recession coincides with  a crisis at the top.

A new politics, a democratic transformation of political systems, is not only possible – it’s absolutely necessary.

Paul Feldman

Monday, February 25, 2013

Interrogated to death in an Israeli jail

For the Israeli authorities, stone-throwing by Palestinians is a sufficient reason for murder by interrogation. That’s the only conclusion you can draw from the autopsy report into the death of Arafat Jaradat who has died in an Israeli detention centre.

News of his death sparked huge protest rallies yesterday in the occupied territories of Khan Youmi and Rafah, across the West Bank and Gaza, with the backing of the Palestinian Authority.

Jaradat was from the village of Sair near Hebron in the occupied West Bank. He was arrested on 18 February and held at the al-Jalame detention and interrogation centre. He died in a special section controlled by the notorious Israeli intelligence service, Shin Bet.

After being briefed by a Palestinian pathologist, the Palestinian minister of Prisoner Affairs Issa Qaraka said the autopsy showed severe bruising in multiple areas of Jaradat’s body.

The British-Danish corporate giant G4S, who were paid million to run the London 2012 Olympic security fiasco, provides “equipment” for both the prisons in which Jaradat was held. The rising numbers include some 219 children.

The Israeli Prisons Service has claimed that Jaradat died of a heart attack. But during his interrogation (aka torture) he was examined by an IPS doctor who was said to have found “no health problems”. Shin Bet’s tormentors saw fit to continue the interrogation. One can only imagine the scenes.

Jaradat’s lawyer, Kamil Sabbagh, who defended him in court last week, said that his client had told him he was being questioned for several hours each day and complained of sharp pains but that no physician had seen him. His family say that after Jaradat was arrested, he was allowed to return home briefly to say goodbye, which they saw as an indication he would be killed.

His death in the hands of the Israeli authorities has sparked a mass hunger strike by most of the 4,812 Palestinian prisoners currently illegally held in Israel jails. This number includes children under the age of 16 and 15 members of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Fears are growing for other activists and human rights defenders, such as Hassan Karajah. His lawyer is calling for an international inquiry into Jaradat’s death. Hassan is being interrogated by the same Shin Bet investigators who oversaw the death of Jaradat.

It is not only Palestinian human rights organisations who are opposing the shocking treatment of Palestinian prisoners. Physicians for Human Rights-Israel have submitted dozens of requests to visit hunger strikers which have been ignored.

They cite the cases of Ayman Sharawna, Samer Issawi, (on hunger strike since last summer) and Jafar Ezzedi and Tariq Qaa’dan, who have been on hunger strike since November.

In a strong statement, PHR-Israel said the hunger strikers have been denied family visits despite their life threatening condition. The group said that the actions of the Israeli authorities “repeatedly violate hunger strikers’ human rights and contravene Israeli laws and regulations, international conventions, and guidelines on medical ethics”.

PHR-Israel denounced the fact that the hunger strikers continue to be shacked to their hospital beds, in violation of medical ethics. It seems that the prison authorities have even ignored guidelines from the Israeli ministry of health.

Palestinian MP Mustafa Barghouti told the Palestinian news agency Ma’an that escalating protests were "a natural development of popular non-violent resistance into a popular non-violent intifada and there is nothing left for Palestinians but to use their popular resistance to get their freedom”. 

The mass hunger strikes by Palestinian prisoners coincides with a financial crisis in the West Bank. A teachers’ strike is starting tomorrow and health care workers are already on a walk-out.

Negotiations with Israel are off the agenda as the settlements multiply throughout the West Bank. Frustration with the political leadership is growing for a variety of reasons. A third Intifada, a new Palestinian uprising, appears inevitable.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

Friday, February 22, 2013

Biofuels land grab a 'recipe for mass hunger'

A few months ago, representatives of nine villages in Madagascar held a press conference in the city of Antananarivo to denounce the Italian company Tozzi Renewable Energy for taking away their lands as part of a 100,000 hectare jatropha plantation that the company is building.

"We small peasants are forced to leave because men armed with guns have come to throw us off our lands," they told reporters. In Sierra Leona, Zainab Kamara is one of several thousand farmers in whose lands have been taken over by the Swiss company Addax Bioenergy for a 10,000 hectare sugar cane plantation to produce ethanol.

"Now I don’t have a farm. Starvation is killing people. We have to buy rice to survive because we don't grow our own now," she says. This one sugar cane project will use 26% percent of Sierra Leone’s largest river flow during the driest months, February to April. In neighbouring Guinea, the government has sold 700,000 hectares to another European firm to grow jatropha. It’s a story repeated in South America, especially in Brazil.

These are just some examples of the havoc wreaked by an unprecedented land grab with the purpose of producing biofuels from raw materials. Europe is one of the centres of this monstrous trade, with purpose-built facilities in the port of Rotterdam part of a frenzy that resembles the ruthless colonialism of the 19th century.

Neste Oil, the state-owned Finnish oil company, has a renewable diesel plant in Rotterdam that will churn out over 900 million litres a year, using palm oil for at least 50% of its raw materials. The firm owns the world’s largest plant in Singapore, which also converts palm oil to diesel for export to Europe.

Next door to Neste Oil's Rotterdam operation is a massive ethanol plant owned by the Spanish energy company Abengoa. Swiss-based Glencore, Europe's second largest agricultural commodities trading house, owns two biodiesel plants in Rotterdam, with a combined capacity of 740 million litres per year

According to a new report from GRAIN, Europe's biofuel companies are increasingly looking for full control over production, right down to the crops. “Shell and BP, for instance, have spent hundreds of millions of euros buying up sugar cane plantations and mills in Brazil to produce ethanol. French commodities giant Louis Dreyfus is also buying up farmland and sugar plantations in South America to feed its ethanol and biodiesel plants.”

European companies are responsible for a third of all the biofuel land grabs that have been reported since 2002, with over 290 seizures totalling 19 million hectares. The forecast is that the global demand for biofuels will more than double by 2020. The additional land required is equivalent to about 80% of the total land mass of Spain.

GRAIN acknowledges that campaigns, negotiations and criticism of the European Union-driven biofuels mania have had little effect. Recent changes to its policy of encouraging biofuels are minimal. “The EU has made only symbolic gestures to add a green veneer to the brutal global land grab that has resulted,” the sustainable farming campaign says

Of the three major markets for biofuels – the US and Brazil are the others - the EU is the only one that relies heavily on imports, both for feedstock (the crops used for biofuel production) and for food to replace European crops diverted to biofuel production. Biofuels eat up over a third of coarse grain production in the US, the world’s largest exporter.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) calls biofuels “the largest source of new demand for agricultural production in the past decade” and says that they represent a new “market fundamental” affecting prices for all cereals”. In plain language, the market says that biofuels is more profitable than food, while the prices of basic necessities soar.

Add in the growing impact of climate change and the separate land grab by sovereign wealth funds to produce food in poor countries for export, you have what GRAIN calls a “a recipe for mass hunger”. As the campaign points out: “These communities and the food systems they sustain are not renewable.”

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Thursday, February 21, 2013

EDF has ConDems over a nuclear barrel

So much for the so-called virtues of the free market. The Coalition government, desperate to maintain energy supplies at any price, has abandoned its previous policy and will now offer nuclear generating companies cash to build new power stations.

French-owned global energy giant EDF has demanded – and is going to get – 40-year's worth of subsidies in what amounts to an outright state bribe to run new plant in the UK.

The ConDems swore after the election that new nuclear expansion would have to pay for itself. But now the government is frantic because the dash for gas has left the UK frighteningly dependent on a global market where a dwindling supply is meeting a growing demand.

The on-shore dash for gas opened up by the government will allow fracking and coal-bed methane capture. Even fully exploited, however, these deposits are small potatoes, leaving the UK reliant on ever-more expensive gas imports.

There are new sources of gas from wholesale fracking in the US but this won't reduce prices, only temporarily fill the gap left by giant north European fields that are now running down.

Two of the major energy corporations have decided not to bid for the UK's new nuclear plants, so EDF is the last firm standing. From that monopoly position they are demanding "contracts for difference" that guarantee a minimum price. If the market price falls below that, the government will pay the balance.

So as youth centres close, and elderly and sick people die lying in their own excrement, and months of austerity stretch into years to appease the financial markets, EDF will be shouting "Vive l’Entente Cordiale" as they rake in taxpayers’ money.

Alistair Buchanan, head of energy regulator Ofgem, is warning that UK customers face higher bills for years not as a result of subsidies for renewables (Tory Neanderthals take note) but because of reliance on expensive imported gas.

So what the 15 nuclear energy staff currently seconded to government departments (according to campaign group Nuclear Spin), are whispering in ministers' ears is something alone the lines of "come on you might as well agree a subsidy price, because it will probably never kick in. Prices will go on soaring for years, and we'll make a fortune, but the guaranteed minimum will help us borrow the £16 billion we need to build the new plants."

Now the gas plant owners are not happy. If nuclear is getting subsidies, they are demanding the same to build new gas plants to replace the older coal-fired stations that are closing.

And the oil industry – well that is already floating on a sea of tax breaks. A briefing published by Platform shows that BP's pre-tax profits tripled in 10 years from 2001 to 2011 but its UK tax payments stayed more or less the same. Profits went from $13.1bn in 2001 to $39.8bn in 2011 – tax payments from £707 million to £730 million. If the corporation tax payments had risen in line with profits that should be $2.1bn.

Shell actually paid less tax - down from £958 million in 2006 to £783 million in 2011. This despite global pre-tax profits rising from $44.6 billion in 2006 to $55.6 billion in 2011. So profits up 25% - tax to HMRC down 18%.

The energy market delivers nothing but a lose-lose scenario for ordinary people. They pay ever-higher fuel bills, subsidise energy corporation profits through their taxes, get no help to make their homes more energy efficient, and suffer the effects of climate change and pollution. And they watch as the nuclear industry leaves deadly waste lying around in canisters for our grandchildren to worry about. It is, as Buchanan said, a "car-crash of an energy policy".

Access to energy at an affordable price should be a basic right. Profiteering corporations have all but converted that right into a privilege, like so much else in Britain. Lower fuel bills and a transition to a clean, green energy future demand democratic ownership and control of the industry. That’s a goal we’ll have to achieve ourselves.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Italy bosses call for 'shock therapy' as recession takes its toll

The south of Europe is fast becoming engulfed in political turmoil as the economic contraction deepens. After protests against soaring electricity prices, austerity and corruption turned violent Bulgaria’s government has collapsed. "I will not participate in a government under which police are beating people," says prime minister Boiko Borisov.

In Greece, Bulgaria’s southern neighbour, workers are once again taking to the streets in the first general strike against austerity for 2013, joining farmers who have been blocking roads for nearly a month, protesting at high production costs and fuel prices.

Despite more than 20 general strikes, economic conditions continue to deteriorate. Claims by the government of Antonis Samaras that the country has now turned the corner would be considered laughable if the situation wasn’t so serious.

Two-thirds of employees in the private sector no longer receive regular pay. Unemployment has passed 27% and is predicted to reach 30% this year. More than 60% of young people are without a job. Benefits run out after one year, so now only 225,000 jobless Greeks are currently receiving monthly state assistance.

Last summer, all but the lowest-paid employees were hit with an emergency bill in additional taxes, often for several thousand euros. Further charges were levied on electricity bills, with households that failed to pay disconnected from the power grid. And another round of tax increases took effect this year, the price of further bailout funds secured in December.

Savas Robolis, professor of economics and public policy at Panteion University in Athens, and the head of research at the General Confederation of Greek Workers says: "The standard of living of the average Greek worker between 2009 and 2012, in a span of 36 months, has declined by at least 50 percent."

GDP is expected to contract by a further 4.1% this year, and Robolis warns that that country is fast approaching a tipping point in which “Greek workers and unemployed people may soon not have enough money left to pay taxes while covering their basic needs. If that happens, it would be the worst possible outcome for the Greek economy and Greek society."

Figures show a sharp fall in the country’s trade deficit, but the published figures so far don’t tell us whether the fall in imports is due to a reduction in capital imports which would signal yet a further sharp contraction.

An election in Italy this weekend is set to replace the appointed technocratic government of Mario Monti. The new government which, amazingly, could see the return of Silvio Berlusconi, due back in court to face sex charges after the election, will take charge of what many call the sickest economy in Europe.

Italy, the eurozone's third-biggest economy, has been in recession since the second half of 2011. After 14 years of near-zero growth it is now smaller than in 2001 and shrank most out of the rich G7 countries last year, its GDP contracting by a bigger than expected 2.7%. 

But as the latest snapshots from the OECD club of rich countries show, a return to growth in Italy or anywhere else is ruled out as the global capitalist recession deepens. Economic output across the OECD's 34 member states fell by 0.2% in the three months to the end of December, representing the first contraction since early 2009. The OECD said that the contraction was "particularly marked" in the European Union, where GDP fell by 0.5%  in the fourth quarter.

Marcella Panucci, director-general of Italy’s big employers’ federation, Confindustria, is pushing for a stable government, that she hopes will pursue “shock therapy” policies to restore growth. This open call to destroy living standards is a real sign of a deepening political and social crisis not just in Italy, but throughout Europe.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A decade of weapons of mass disinformation about Iraq

News that the BBC is preparing a special programme to mark the 10th anniversary of the illegal invasion of Iraq doesn’t feel you with joy, even though it might contain new material about the Blair government’s use – or, rather, misuse – of intelligence.

The BBC’s record on a war that led to the disintegration of a country that continues to this day, is not a pretty one. Did the BBC challenge any of the lies during the run-up to the war? For example, the lie supplied by British intelligence that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Niger? Or the false claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction? 

In company with virtually all the mainstream media, the BBC went along with the Blair government’s falsehoods. Former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter told anyone who wanted to listen what the real position was: “All this talk about Iraq having chemical weapons is no longer valid. Most of it is based on speculation that Iraq could have hidden some of these weapons from UN inspectors.”  

When Andrew Gilligan suggested on the May 29, 2003 Today programme on Radio 4 that a government dossier on Iraq had been “sexed up”, all hell broke out. Gilligan was compelled to quit in January 2004, along with director-general Greg Dyke and chairman Gavin Davies, after the publication of the whitewash Hutton report.

When the Butler report on the use of pre-war intelligence was published later in 2004, Dyke said it proved that Gilligan was right. It was too late for government scientist David Kelly, who helped Gilligan with the original story. He had died in somewhat suspicious circumstances 12 months earlier after being hounded by Labour MPs.

From a decade of sanctions to the invasion and its consequences, the people of Iraq have been subject of a ghastly experiment that rivals anything in previous history. A decade of sanctions prior to 2003 led to the deaths of 500,000 children from malnutrition, lack of medicine and disease from polluted water supplies.

At least a 100,000 Iraqi civilians have lost their lives in the ensuring chaos. Other sources, including the Lancet magazine, suggest the death toll is over 600,000. The death toll climbs on a daily basis. Hundreds of thousands have fled the country as refugees and up to a million have been displaced. A third of the country’s physicians have left Iraq since 2003. Thousands of occupying troops were killed and 35,000 US soldiers injured.

The cost to the US taxpayer to date is $1,000 billion. And for what? Halliburton and other corporations made piles of money initially. But the neo-cons’ dream of a “New American Century”, where America would build “free-market democracies” at will is in tatters. The Chinese control most of Iraq’s oil contracts.

As the US foreign policy think-tank CSIS notes: “The US invasion now seems to be a de facto grand strategic failure in terms of its cost in dollars and blood, its post-conflict strategic outcome, and the value the US could have obtained from different uses of its political, military, and economic resources. The US went to war for the wrong reasons – focusing on threats from weapons of mass destruction and Iraqi-government sponsored terrorism that did not exist.”

There is more than just a failure of US policy here, however. If we actually lived in a half-just world, then Bush and Blair and everyone in their regimes who endorsed the invasion would be behind bars for war crimes. Millions marched in Britain and around the world in an heroic but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to prevent the invasion. This time around we need to mobilise to create a real democracy that can put an end to wars for profit.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Monday, February 18, 2013

Anti-Muslim witchhunt fuels Bangladesh crisis

The brutal murder of blogger Ahmad Rajib Haider, a leader in the mass occupation of the Shahbag junction in the capital Dhaka, has deepened the crisis enveloping Bangladesh over the consequences of the country’s struggle for independence over 40 years ago.

Haider, who was a blogger under the pen name Thaba Baba, was attacked outside his home on Friday night after returning from a 100,000-strong rally. His family and many others say that the student wing of Bangladesh’s largest Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islam was behind the killing. Hundreds of thousands knelt in prayer on Saturday as his coffin was carried through the city.

The Dhaka protesters in the city centre are demanding the execution of Jamaat leaders currently on trial for war crimes committed during the country’s struggle for independence from Pakistan. That war ended in 1971 after a nine-month conflict in which some three million people were killed by the Pakistani army plus 200,000 women raped. Pro-Pakistani militias responsible for many of the killings are thought to have included Jamaat officials.

The legacy of the war still haunts Bangladesh. Some of those who carried out atrocities were not prosecuted and have even enjoyed long stints in power and children of victims are still afraid to use their parents’ names. Investigations into army crimes and who was responsible had a strange habit of disappearing and/or being classified for decades.  

Clashes between police and Islamists have intensified since last week after a senior Jamaat leader was sentenced to life imprisonment for mass murder. Rival protests by Islamists demanding a halt to the trials of Jamaat leaders have turned violent across the country, leaving 13 people dead.  Prime minister Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Bangladesh founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and president of the ruling Awami League since 1981, has indicated that she would back a ban on Jamaat. Her party has had a super-majority in parliament since January 2009.

The Bangladeshi parliament yesterday amended a law which will permit the prosecution of Jamaat for war crimes. Jamaat leaders, along with the extreme right Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) are boycotting parliament. The amendments would ensure the rapid execution of any convicted Jamaat leaders and a 60-day limit enabling the Supreme Court to dispose of appeals.

As Human Rights Watch observers point out, the government has been directly interfering in the judicial process. The amendments “ violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which states that “no one shall be liable to be tried or punished again for an offence for which he has already been finally convicted or acquitted in accordance with the law and penal procedure of each country.” 

Banning or attacking political parties, or removing web sites as the Bangladesh’s telecoms regulator has done with Jamaat,  is the wrong response to the crimes or any other religious or political organisation. It simply gives more power to the state and its security forces and can be turned against any political opposition.

In a population of over 150 million, 90% of Bangladeshi citizens are Muslim. However much one may be in favour of a secular state, the repression of Jamaat or any other Islamic parties will only make them go underground and potentially more popular. The banning of the Islamic Salvation Army opposition in Algeria and the cancelling of elections during the 1990s solved nothing. Instead, it contributed to a decade of terror, in which tens of thousands of civilians lost their lives.

Exploiting the Shahbag protests to promote an anti-Muslim crusade, as Nick Cohen does in the Observer, only helps fuel the state-sponsored myth of the “Muslim” threat.  There is no question that crimes of the past must be brought out into the open, those responsible prosecuted and there must be redress for the victims. But introducing the death penalty and banning political parties – which can be turned against any opposition - are dangerous steps in the wrong direction.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

Friday, February 15, 2013

The politics of increasingly small differences

It’s reached the point where you need a high-powered microscope to detect the differences between the major political parties. If there are any, they are at sub-atomic level as the much-heralded speech on the economy by Ed Miliband demonstrates.

The economy is in crisis, in its deepest recession since the 1930s. People have stopped spending because they don’t have the money. Retail sales fell last month and not just because of the bad weather.

Most ordinary people are either repaying debts or simply don’t have the income. If you have a job, your wages are falling in real terms; if you’re unemployed your benefits are miserly and also declining.

ConDem austerity policies have made a bad thing worse. But then they are also caught up in the crisis not just of the British economy but of the global capitalist system. Yesterday Germany and France reported deep contractions in their economies, for example.

Corporations are ripping off the taxpayer while the privatised utilities, rail networks and supermarkets are banging up prices like there is no tomorrow. Meanwhile, the supermarkets have never bothered to check whether beef is actually horsemeat. 

People are angry, fed up and increasingly desperate for a solution.

Enter the Labour leader Miliband. Did he promise a cut in train fares, control of soaring private rents or a return of gas and electricity to public ownership? Did he hell! All he came up with was the return of a 10p tax rate for the low paid scrapped by the previous Labour government and a so-called “mansion tax”.

The Tories are thinking of introducing the tax rate and the Liberal Democrats are in favour of the mansion tax. So forgive me for declaring Miliband’s speech to be a prime example of the politics of small differences. As The Independent noted:

What was striking was the overlap with either existing Coalition plans or proposals from one or other of its members. Even the repeated references to “working people” sounded suspiciously similar to the Tory pre-occupation with “strivers”.

It’s not as if the sums even add up. A 10p tax rate for low earners would cost the Treasury about £7 billion. The best estimates for the revenue for a tax on high value homes is £2 billion, according to experts at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), which noted:

"To have observed lower starting rates of tax being introduced and abolished by governments of both complexions over the last three decades and then to propose the same thing again suggests a remarkable failure to learn from history." The same aims, the IFS added, could be achieved by increasing personal tax allowances.

On the mansion tax proposals, the IFS described the idea as a bandage over the regressive council tax system which under-taxes valuable properties. "Rather than adding a mansion tax on top of an unreformed and deficient council tax, it would be better to reform council tax itself to make it proportional to current property values," the think tank said.

Perhaps Labour will abandon the mansion tax proposal –  which is widely viewed as a bid to cosy up to the Liberal Democrats in case the next election is a stalemate – when it realises that several of its MPs will be in the firing line.

David Miliband’s home is in the £2 million-plus bracket which Labour intends to use as a benchmark. So is deputy leader Harriet Harman’s home in Herne Hill, south London, which she bought with a cheap mortgage provided by her husband’s union (she also has another home in Suffolk).

And then there is the wealthy Labour MP for Feltham and Heston, Seema Malhotra who won a by-election in the relatively poor West London constituency. The market value of her home in fashionable Chelsea is reputedly over £3 million.

Finally, there is Ed himself. He lives in a house, in the name of his wife, which is valued at up to £2.3 million – a rise of £700,000 in the three years since it was purchased. Yes, they are all in it together. One big ConDemLab nation.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Thursday, February 14, 2013

How the public good became Monsanto's private gain

Agrichemical companies like Monsanto are pursuing hundreds of US farmers and farm companies through the courts, suing them for millions of dollars for infringement of seed patents. It’s a result of the wholesale transfer of crop varieties to the corporations.

By the end of 2012, Monsanto had pocketed £23.5 million from court judgments, but that amount is nothing to the hundreds of millions they and other chemical corporations have got in confidential out-of-court settlements.

The Centre for Food Safety and Save our Seeds have exposed the shocking story of how neo-conservatives in the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court facilitated the transfer of crop varieties from freely available goods to ruthlessly-controlled private property.

Up to the early 1980s, publicly-funded scientists working in the universities or the Department of Agriculture developed most new crop varieties. "In 1980, the share of overall US crop acreage planted with public sector seed was 70% for soybeans and 72-85% for various types of wheat," their report explains.

Public scientists developed the process of hybridization, including the first high-yielding hybrid corn varieties. But hybridised seed doesn't grow true from saved seed, so farmers must buy new each year to retain the in-bred characteristics. Enter the agricorporations. Already producing herbicides and pesticides, they saw the opportunity for big profits and moved into crop breeding.

For 200 years, Congress had resisted pressure to authorise patents on staple food crops. Then in the 1980s, as globalisation took off, chemical corporations were handed control of US agriculture as part of a process whereby ALL America's public assets were being transferred into the hands of profit-driven corporations.

New intellectual property regulations and policies allowed the corporations to stampede through hundreds of patents for genetic materials and plants. These were altered hardly at all from the existing varieties developed using public money.
Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta and Dow implemented a ruthless programme of mergers and acquisitions, buying up small to medium-sized state-based firms. These mostly bred seed for their local conditions but that work has been swallowed up by the one-size fits all (or else) approach.

The report debunks claims that patents are needed for the corporations to invest in research and development: "The vast majority of plant improvement in American history has been accomplished by farmers and public sector plant breeders, and these tremendous advances were made without any system of ‘innovation-promoting’ intellectual property protection for plants."

In effect the US government and judiciary have colluded with the corporations to "enshrine corporate interests instead of safeguarding farmers and small, independent businesses", the report concludes. This privatisation and monopolisation of products of nature is "contrary to centuries of traditional seed breeding based on collective community knowledge and established in the public domain and for the public good."

And it also endangers the future of food supplies. Monsanto's giant "success story" is breeding crops resistant to repeated applications of Round-Up weed killer. Now agronomists are warning of an epidemic of weeds that have also evolved resistance to glyphosate. Nearly 61.2 million acres of US farmland was infested with these resistant weeds in 2012.

Seed produced by the corporations so dominates the market that it is virtually impossible to find commercial varieties that do not contain patented genetic markers. And many varieties that could have helped to resolve new problems have disappeared. That's why farmers, seed “washers” (who prepare saved seed for planting) and farming companies cannot escape the clutches of the corporations.

The privatisation and commercialisation of the commons means food supply is predominantly in the hands of profit-hungry corporations who will stamp out independent agriculture and production where they can. Liberating ourselves from the likes of Monsanto and Dow Chemicals is an absolute priority not just for farmers but for the whole of humanity.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Working for free nightmare is here to stay

Jubilant opponents of the ConDems’ multi-faceted so-called Work Programme are celebrating two court judgements ruling that most of the schemes were unlawful. Yet their joy is certain to prove short-lived.

It means that university graduate Cait Reilly shouldn’t have been obliged to give up volunteering at a museum to work for free filling shelves at Poundland in order to keep her unemployment benefits.

Neither should Jamie Wilson an unemployed HGV driver from Nottingham have been told that he had to work unpaid, cleaning furniture for 30 hours a week for six months, under a scheme called the Community Action Programme.

Tessa Gregory of Public Interest Lawyers was among those claiming that all of those who refused to take part in these schemes and were stripped of their benefits have a right to claim the money back.

But the celebrations will be cut short. Within hours of the judgement, ministers at the Department of Work and Pensions issued new, more detailed regulations which, they insist, allow the workfare schemes to continue unabated.

And in reply to those who want to claim back benefits unlawfully taken away from them, employment minister Mark Hoban was on BBC last night looking and sounding like a character in a Dickens novel whipping up “the taxpayers”,  insisting that people without work should be grateful for the “help” they’re being offered.

Paragraph 74 of the judgement says this: “However, any scheme must be such as has been authorised by Parliament. There is a constitutional issue involved.” So there’s more than the technicalities of regulations at stake here. The government no longer consults parliament.

And it goes deeper still.

Tom Walker, employment law partner at law firm Manches, said: "This judgment upholds what is perhaps the key tenet of employment, namely the 'work wage bargain'. If someone gives their labour to a company, they should be paid for it. However well intentioned a workplace scheme may be, it is very dangerous to introduce compulsory unpaid labour into the UK employment market."
Last week the court heard another legal challenge, this time to the tightening of constraints on non-EU immigration which has split thousands of families in recent months. The operation of these schemes wasn’t subject to Parliamentary approval either.

The deepening global financial and economic crisis has brought the system to its point of breakdown. Companies like Poundland now depend on essentially free, state-subsidised labour to produce and sell devalued and debased products

Anything so long as it’s cheap and profitable, never mind their effects on people or the planet. The same pressures are at work on companies throughout the global food chain, whether it’s the cheap labour demanded by UK fruit and vegetable growers, or the processors and sellers of horsemeat lasagne.

Now the state is sanctioning the end of the wage-labour contract, which is the fundamental social relationship that defines capitalist production.  And Walker is right. That’s a dangerous thing to do.

So its time for a real celebration.

February 12, 2013 was the official first day of production under workers’ control in the factory of Viomichaniki Metalleutiki (Vio.Me) in, Greece. This means production organised without bosses and hierarchy, and instead planned with directly democratic assemblies of the workers.

The workers’ assemblies have declared an end to unequal division of resources, and will have equal and fair remuneration, decided collectively. It’s the way to go wherever you live and work.

Social relations based on private ownership must now either revert to slavery or be superseded by a new stage in social evolution. We must learn the lessons from the past. Arbeit macht Frei – labour makes you free – was the sign posted above concentration camps by the Nazis.

So we have to move forward to a democratically-determined, collective stewardship of the world ‘s resources and sustainable production to satisfy need. This goal can’t be postponed.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Tunisia crisis poses renewal of the revolution

The abrupt turns by Tunisia’s Congress for the Republic party highlight the political fragility of the country which was the birthplace of the Arab spring two years ago and the potential of the masses to bring change.

Tunisia’s peaceful revolution made it a bellwether for Arab democracy and its current crisis – parallel to the one gripping Egypt - is important for that reason.

The CPR, president Moncef Marzouki’s party, announced a few days ago that it was withdrawing from coalition government which includes the ruling Islamist party Al-Nahda.

The secular CPR is part of the ruling coalition overseen by prime minister Hamadi Jebali. But yesterday, CPR secretary-general Mohammed Abou said the party would delay its plans to pull its ministers out of the cabinet.

Al-Nahda itself  has been in crisis since Sunday, when three of its own ministers resigned from the cabinet. But Jebali’s decision to dissolve the cabinet and replace it with technocrats is being challenged by his own party and others in the coalition.

The constitutional crisis reflects the continuing mass unrest in Tunisia since last week’s daylight execution of the opposition leader of the Jabha Chaabya (Popular Front), Chokri Belaid. Belaid’s murder by unknown gunmen is said to be the first political assassination since Tunisia's independence from France in 1965.

In fact Tunis was the scene of the execution by Israeli commandos of Yassir Arafat’s co-leader Abu Jihad in 1988. Tunisian opposition party WAFA is currently planning to sue Israel for its involvement.

Belaid’s co-leader and companion, Hammami Hamma, says that execution of revolutionary left Belaid, was "planned and executed by professionals”. Responsibility, Hamma said, lies with the government, which has demonstrated a "guilty indulgence towards violence."

In ongoing unrest hundreds of thousands have been demonstrating in Tunis against Belaidis’ murder and around the country.  Last Friday, Tunisia’s largest trade union called a general strike, one of the few in the country’s history. The leader of the General Union of Tunisian Workers said he had received a death threat as did radio journalist and blogger Emna Ben Jemaa.

The internal conflict within Nahda is a reflection of the contending forces within Tunisia in the wake of the overthrow of its former dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who ruled the country from 1987 until January 2011. He has since been sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment for inciting violence and murder.

But does it all boil down to a conflict between the “fundamentalist” wing of the Islamic Salafist movement and the secular democrats within the ruling coalition?

Certainly there is plenty of evidence that political assassinations serves the interests of those who seek to unseat liberal-leaning, pro-Western politicians, as with the seizure of hostages in the Algerian gas plant and elsewhere. The insecurity of the ruling parties in Tunisian coalition politics as in Egypt is clearly something to be exploited by sinister forces.

Indeed, the revolutionary Arab spring is in danger. But the simplistic narrative that the alternatives consist of “Western democracy” versus indigenous Islam is wrong and dangerous.

The overthrow of Ben Ali like that of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt marked the end of an historic epoch. The rule of those like Ali’s predecessor, Bourguiba was the result of an impasse. The uprising that followed the immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in late 2010, came because there was no possibility of reform from within the regime.

Unrest and crisis continues because none of the conditions behind the 2011 uprising have been changed: massive unemployment, a deteriorating economy, but above all the lack of an economic and political say in the country’s future, all remain burning issues. Protesters have been attacked by security forces with tear gas and the torture of opponents continues in Tunisia’s notorious jails.

Electoral coalitions shuffling power amongst themselves cannot satisfy these aspirations. It is clear that the limited political democracy offered by its ruling political formations – secular or religious -  cannot meet the aspirations of the Tunisian youth, workers, women and farmers. A renewal of the revolution that this time aims to transfer real power to the people is on the horizon.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

Monday, February 11, 2013

Horsemeat scandal driven by cost-cutting and profit

The horsemeat scandal is easier to explain than to trace. What we have are profit-hungry, self-regulated major retailers using their power to force down prices paid to suppliers who in turn cut their own costs by sourcing raw materials more cheaply.

As the price of beef has risen – reaching a new high last year - the pressure on the suppliers in France and Ireland has grown. They were desperate to cut the price they were paying for what they thought would be beef.

Instead, horsemeat – which may itself contain traces of antibiotics dangerous to humans – entered the food supply chain throughout Europe. It was a disaster waiting to happen.

And the victims? Mostly poorer people who with food prices rising fast, have had little  choice but to buy “value” and other similarly labelled, comparatively low-priced, processed, frozen meat products they were led to believe contained beef.

The winners? Those who sold horsemeat under the label beef. Beef sells for around €4
kilo of beef costs while horsemeat fetches 90 cents.

A labyrinthine supply chain provided the opportunity. One investigation compared the chain to something money launderers would have been proud of. It involved “a  deliberately murky complexity of semi-regulated sources, abattoirs, suppliers, middlemen, imports, exports, labelling and relabelling”.

Originating in Romania, where cows are slaughtered and minced, some was imported to France and sold on to another French company before being despatched to a factory in Luxembourg. French government officials believe that another French company also bought the meat frozen from a Cypriot meat trader, who sublet part of the order to another trader in the Netherlands, who was supplied by an abattoir in Romania.

Of course, there was no testing despite strict rules on the traceability of meat that were imposed in France during the BSE crisis in the 1990s. In fact, there was no testing anywhere in Europe – apart from Ireland. The Irish authorities, acting on a tip-off, raided the firms that were supplying Tesco and discovered horsemeat destined for beef burgers.

A globalised, complex food chain dominated by a handful of retailers and suppliers, whose first concern is the bottom line, is the backdrop. Professor Karel Williams, at Manchester Business School, described the horsemeat scandal as  the inevitable result of processors “constantly ringing around to get the cheapest deal this week”.

The Food Standards Agency in the UK, set up in the wake of the BSE scandal, is generally regarded as being in the pockets of the supermarkets. They have lobbied for and succeeded in achieving what is known as “light-touch regulation”. This is essentially reduced to suppliers ticking boxes (New Labour also pioneered a similar approach in the banking sector and we know what happened there).

The ConDems have axed hundreds of meat inspectors and trading standards officers as part of the austerity cuts. Now the Coalition is saying the industry must sort itself out. Newspapers like The Observer are whistling in the dark with their call for more regulation. Well, it’s never going to happen and it’s bound to get worse as cost-cutting becomes more intense.

 “I think what we are seeing is just the tip of the iceberg,” says Professor Chris Elliot, director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University in Belfast. “There are probably plenty of other problems lurking out there we aren’t aware of.”

The truth is that leaving food in the hands of a handful of retailers and suppliers is good for shareholders but dangerous for our health. Corporate control of food and agriculture is the problem. Successive scandals have shown that to be the case. No amount of regulation will alter that.
Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Friday, February 08, 2013

Real democracy needs a new constitution

Watching the impressive Steven Spielberg film Lincoln brought home how important a constitution is to a country and the momentous, often historic, struggle it takes to bring it into line with contemporary social circumstances.

The original US constitution gave effect to the American revolution that threw off British colonial rule. Lincoln’s 13th amendment, which is the subject of the movie, put in writing what had happened on the battlefields of the Civil War by outlawing slavery which the original constitution ignored.

What the amendment also did was to create the conditions for a rapid development of US capitalism by creating a new workforce of African-Americans who were free to sell their labour in factories and on the farms. A federal state strengthened by the outcome of the Civil War supported and facilitated this process – then and now.

What has this got to do with us in Britain, you may ask? As ordinary Americans have discovered, their existing constitution is predominantly the shield for a state that reinforces the status quo of corporate and financial power.    

In Britain, although there is no codified constitution unlike the US, a variety of laws and conventions give rise to the same situation. Power, real decision making power, is held by a set of state institutions that exist to serve not the people but the so-called corporate masters of the universe.

We don’t live under a true democracy but, in practice, a corporatocracy. A horrible word to be sure, but one that nicely sums up the effective coincidence of politics and big business.

Which is why a number of organisations have launched an appeal to win support for a project which they have called “Towards an Agreement of the People for the 21st Century”. This connects with the historic struggle of the Levellers who championed democratic rights during the civil war between the Crown and Parliament.

They say: “Today increasing numbers of people are disillusioned and alienated by a political process which is impoverishing millions through austerity, inequality and privilege. The struggle for democracy, begun by the Levellers in the 1647 Agreement of the People and taken forward by the Chartists and Suffragettes, continues. But advances in democratic rights and civil liberties are being undermined.

“The concentration of bureaucratic, financial and corporate power has led to the transition from a welfare state to a market-driven state which deregulates, outsources and privatises services. Parliaments in Westminster, Cardiff and Edinburgh are totally inadequate as a means of popular representation, democratic control and accountability.”
They are calling for a “new constitutional settlement” to “advance democracy and place power firmly in the hands of the majority” and are inviting individuals and groups to support the project in principle.

Supporters of the project so far include John McDonnell MP, A World to Win, Real Democracy working group of Occupy London and the National Community Activists Network.

A draft Agreement of the People for the 21st century is also being circulated for comment, amendment and revision. The draft proposes that a new constitution should set out new human and social, economic, environmental and indigenous rights.

These include the right to co-operative ownership in place of shareholder control and to democracy and self-management in all areas/activities of the workplace,  the right to live in an environment shaped by ecological care and not profits and the right to hold and use land held in common.

To help achieve these aims, the draft adds, we should “encourage the building of a new, nation-wide democratic tradition from the ground up through, for example, diverse Peoples’ Assemblies, as a means of transforming the state”.

That political and social change that we need to end austerity, create a real democracy and establish effective control over the decisions that shape our lives absolutely requires a new constitution as a framework. Mobilising people, organisations and communities to achieve an Agreement of the People for the 21st century is a real priority. You can email your support for the project to

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Young people need a future beyond capitalism

Britain is failing young people on every front and you have to wonder if the state has any concern for their future at all. From massive unemployment to deaths in prison, to the impact of the cuts – young people are victims of a massive onslaught.

One in five young people are unemployed and youth unemployment is rising faster here than in other European Union member states; only Greece and Spain have higher rates of joblessness among the new generation. For many, it’s a choice between workfare – modern-day slavery – or face losing meagre benefits.

Local councils in England and Wales on the look-out for ways to implement the cuts slashed spending on youth services by a quarter in the year to 2012, and in some places total destruction is on the cards. Southampton and Newcastle plan to cut 100% of council spending on youth services.

Derby Council is eliminating 83% of the grant that helps young people who have been in care or homeless to cope on their own. This support is being slashed across the country, though not everywhere so brutally as in Derby.

The number of homeless young people is rising. Figures collected in mid-2012 by the charity Broadway, showed the number of rough sleepers aged under 25 in London increased 158% in 12 months. There were 638 young people verified as rough sleeping in 2011/12, compared with 247 in 2010/11.

Many young homeless  people suffer from a treatable mental illness, A recent Cardiff University report found that 93% of young homeless on the streets showed signs of mental illness. Over 40% were suffering from clinical depression and 35.5% from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The UK locks up more young people than any EU country apart from Spain, and a recent report from the Howard League for Penal Reform reveals a shocking increase in deaths and self-harm in the criminal justice system.

Twenty-three children died last year, three of them in prison and 20 while being supervised by youth offending teams in the community. Two were murdered, the others either took their own lives or died in accidents.

Incidents of self-harm in youth prisons increased by 21%, to 1,700, that's almost 33 reports a week. Almost half of all children in custody have mental health problems and these are not being properly treated or taken into account, says the charity Young Minds.

It's a grim picture, but young people are clearly ready to fight back. There have been youth protests against cuts in Birmingham and Southampton. In Redbridge and Newcastle, the Youth Councils are organising opposition to cuts. Youth Councils are not exactly centres of radical action but they offer a voice and young people are using it.

The riots that shook cities across England in 2011 were another kind of resistance, caused by a deep sense of injustice at unfair treatment by police and growing anger at inequality and lack of opportunity.

You might think there's a million miles between the rioters and the well-spoken Youth Council members but young people share a great sense of solidarity with each other.  The student fees protests of 2011 brought together young people of all classes and all social and racial backgrounds.

We should campaign for and support the creation of local youth Assemblies that organise against cuts and unemployment but also set out to draw up a positive programme. Young people most of all need to see a future beyond capitalism, a future of without repressive prisons, and with jobs, housing and opportunities for all young people. Assemblies are the place to develop just such an horizon.

Penny Cole

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Obama's 'terror' state under challenge

Journalist Chris Hedges is a passionate and principled man, and these attributes have brought him into a direct conflict with the Obama administration and the US state over the dubious “legality” of anti-terror laws. 

Hedges’ 15-year career as foreign correspondent for the New York Times ended in 2003 when he was reprimanded for opposing the unlawful invasion of Iraq.  In 2011 he took part in Occupy Wall Street, and was among those arrested.

In September last year, with others, he defeated the Obama government in court, challenging the administration’s new anti-terrorism legislation. Hedges argues that it restricts news reporting, protest and political organising in defence of controversial causes and could be used to indefinitely imprison journalists, activists and human rights workers. 

The appeal, which opens in court today coincides,  with the publication of a hitherto 16-page secret memo prepared by Obama’s Department of Justice that sets out to justify the president’s power to target even Americans for assassination by drone without due process.

Glenn Greenwald, noted writer on civil liberties and constitutional issues, commented: “The core distortion of the War on Terror under both Bush and Obama is the Orwellian practice of equating government accusations of terrorism with proof of guilt. One constantly hears US government defenders referring to ‘terrorists’ when what they actually mean is: those accused by the government of terrorism. This entire memo is grounded in this deceit.”

Hedges’ co-plaintiffs in the case include Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, linguistic philosopher and campaigner Noam Chomsky, Icelandic parliamentarian Birgitta Jónsdóttir, Jennifer Bolen, founder of the activist media group RevolutionTruth and Occupy London activist Kai Wargalla.

Hedges took his campaign to the People’s Recovery Summit in Brooklyn, on Saturday. The opening words of his extraordinarily stirring speech are about as direct and uncompromising as you can get: 
The corporate state has made it clear there will be no more Occupy encampments. The corporate state is seeking through the persistent harassment of activists and the passage of draconian laws such as Section 1021(b)(2) of the National Defence Authorization Act…to shut down all legitimate dissent. The corporate state is counting, most importantly, on its system of debt peonage to keep citizens — especially the 30 million people who make up the working poor —from joining our revolt. 
Hedges has teamed up with political activist and former consumer champion Ralph Nader, launching a campaign to raise the minimum hourly wage in the US from its current $7.25 – the lowest amongst the rich Western countries. Nader is pushing for $10.50 – to bring the value back up to what it would buy in 1968.  Hedges is going further. He wants it to be $11.

He argues that the dominance of the economy by credit and debt has changed the character of class warfare. He believes that a mass movement to raise the minimum wage by 50% will be a challenge to the corporate state, discrediting it, even paralysing it. He says: 
This debt peonage must be broken if we are going to build a mass movement to paralyze systems of corporate power. And the most effective weapon we have to liberate ourselves as well as the 30 million Americans who make up the working poor is a sustained movement to raise the minimum wage nationally to at least $11 an hour. 
Hedges believes that the moment workers rise up and demand justice is the “moment the staggering inequality of wealth begins to be reversed”. Hedges is clear that the campaign for a minimum, let alone a living wage is inseparable from the conflict with the state.

But the bankrupt capitalist economy cannot and will not concede to even such minimal demands. Inequality is not going to be “reversed” by mass pressure, athough the Hedges-Nader campaign deserves everyone's support. Inequality is actually built into global capitalism in whichever country it operates. And if the state decides to use anti-terror laws to suppress dissent and protest it won’t hesitate to do so because it exists to defend the status quo. Never forget that.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

An inconvenient truth for Al Gore

Promoting his new book, former US vice-president Al Gore says that the country’s democracy has been “hacked” by corporate interests. Well, despite hacking being deemed a criminal offence, no arrests appear imminent when it comes to big business.

Hacktivists, however, are routinely arrested because they are taking action against the system. Nevertheless Gore, who made the successful film on climate change An Inconvenient Truth, has once again indicted the US democratic process in a way few other tackled politicians have dared do..

Gore told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show : "It can be fixed, but we need to recognise that our democracy has been hacked … It has been taken over … and is being operated for purposes other than those for which it was intended."

Previously, he used the term “hollowed out” in pointing out that the democratic process was effectively a shell whose content was dominated by money interests. In his BBC interview Gore said government decision-making was "feeble, dysfunctional and servile" to corporate interests. 

In another media appearances associated with his book The Future, he said: “Congress is incapable of passing any reforms unless they first get permission from the powerful special interests that are most affected by the proposal.” But that’s not new or news.

When he was vice-president to Bill Clinton, the administration had a chance to stand up to money. But it didn’t. Who can forget the way the White House caved in to the big insurance companies and pharmaceutical corporations when it tried to legislate a comprehensive health care plan in 1993?

Or how during the eight years of the Clinton presidency, financial deregulation took off.
As Time magazine noted: "Among his [Clinton’s] biggest strokes of free-wheeling capitalism was the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, which repealed the Glass-Steagall Act, a cornerstone of Depression-era regulation. He also signed the Commodity Futures Modernization Act, which exempted credit-default swaps from regulation. In 1995 Clinton loosened housing rules by rewriting the Community Reinvestment Act, which put added pressure on banks to lend in low-income neighbourhoods.”

So when Gore says that the role of money has “greatly increased”, he ought to take some political responsibility for that. But he can’t and he won’t because, in the end, he is unable/unwilling to identify the root cause of this and other issues.

On climate change, for example, Gore will talk about human activity but not about the incessant, profit-driven drive for growth, which is not surprising as he himself is extremely rich. His new book identifies what he considers are the emerging forces that are shaping the world.

While they include “unsustainable” population growth (joining hands here with David Attenborough) you won’t be surprised to find that capitalism as a social system doesn’t get a look in.

He wants the role of money to be “diminished” and a grassroots movement “to demand that politics be opened up”. Gore hopes that individuals empowered by the new communications infrastructure “will be able to reclaim their birthrights as free citizens and redeem the promise of representative democracy."

This is a highly improbable agenda. Firstly, real change doesn’t happen because a load of people get blogging or use Facebook. In the end, they have to be out there in numbers, acting collectively in the material world as shown in the Arab Spring.

Secondly, the American revolution that threw off British colonial rule established the world’s first representative democracy with a purpose. One of the aims of James Madison, the father of the constitution, was to keep power within the hands of the political class and out of the hands of ordinary citizens.

After the Civil War had freed the slaves and created the conditions (and a workforce) fit for the development of a ruthless American capitalism, it wasn’t long before money had subsumed politics. The recent period of corporate-driven globalisation completed the process.

With due respects to Gore, the revolution in communications will have to be accompanied by a new American Revolution that goes beyond representative democracy. It will have to have as its goal the government of the people, by the people, for the people that Lincoln promised at Gettysburg in 1863.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor