Sunday, February 24, 2008

Hands Off Iraqi Oil - Liverpool Picket

Activists from the Liverpool Social Forum picketed the Shell garage on Aigburth Road yesterday, as part of Hands Off Iraqi Oil's day of action.

We decided to participate in January, when Greg Muttitt of Hands Off Iraqi Oil came to our social centre, Next To Nowhere, and gave a talk on conditions in Iraq. He told us about the proposed oil law which the US puppet government is trying to pass, which would guarantee massive profits to western oil companies, while leaving Iraqi workers in poverty. He also described some of the inspirational resistance which the law is facing from members of Iraqi oil unions. Our response was taken in solidarity with those workers in struggle, and to help raise awareness about the main reason British soldiers are still in Iraq.

Yesterday's action was very effective, getting information out to many people who were using the petrol station. Activists engaged in conversations with many drivers, and received a lot of support. People in cars then spent their time queueing on the forecourt reading our leaflets. Our banner also got loads of passing drivers beeping their horns and raising their fists (only a couple of times in anger at us!).

This is something we may try again, especially with the fifth anniversary of the invasion coming up in a few weeks.

Merseyside TUC and Merseyside Stop The War Coalition were also due to picket the BP garage in Scotland Road yesterday.

Photo of Shell action to follow...

For reports of other Hands Off Iraqi Oil events, look here and here and here.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Interview With A Hacktivist

I recently conducted an interview with 'Shai', Liverpool's resident hactivist. He's organising a hactivism evening at the city's social centre, Next To Nowhere, on Wednesday 5th March. I talked to him about his plans for the event, his ideas for improving activists' use of technology, and asked what's so damned exciting about all those zeroes and ones anyway...

What are you planning for your hacktivism event?

On March the 5th members of the BrB are doing a gig at the Liverpool Social Forum, which is located on Bold Street in the city. It will be held in the free space, or Next to Nowhere as it's known. The free space itself is under the Next to Nowhere book store (hence the name). We'll be kicking off at about 7pm and it finishes about 10 ish. At the gig we'll be presenting an introduction to the world of hackers and hacktivism. It's not just two hours of technical babble, as a matter of fact it's easy to understand no matter what your technical knowledge. We'll also be doing some demonstrations. A good defence starts with knowing how your attacker works, hence the demos. We're careful not to break the law here, people don't have to worry about the legality of the event.

What is the biggest mistake that activists make?

Tough one. Not having much experience in activism myself they could show me a million things I don't know! However I would say, not being aware of the risks posed by technical monitoring by third parties. Eavesdropping if you like. We'll be exploring this on the night. It's essential that people understand how and why 3rd party's snoop on things, otherwise you have no hope of protecting yourself and your right to privacy. It also frightens me that there is such an apathy towards it, a kind of "it won't happen to us, we're just a small group not doing anything" attitude. It's nothing new. Individuals often say that their not bothered if, say, their home computer was broken into; perhaps because they think there is no sensitive information there. This is a very naive attitude, there are many reasons why they should be bothered. How would they feel about a knock on the door at 4am because unknown to them their home computer has been taken over by a pirate who is using it to distribute child pornography? Oh right. Sudden change in attitude.

How do activists react when they find out you are a hactivist?

Varies. Some are put off at first as they link hacking with criminal activity, I can't blame them it's a false stereotype the media have churned out for years now. Once your over that people get curious and really very interested, there's always that 'question they've wanted to ask a hacker'.

Were you a hactivist before you were an activist? How did you become interested in hactivism?

I was, yes. I became interested in it after I read about China's national firewall policy.

Why is computer technology so important to you?

In itself it's not. It's important to realise that it's no more than a tool. It's what you do with that tool. You can apply the philosophy of hacking to many different situations. You hack to learn rather than learn to hack. Computer technology is a tool for learning, it's the learning that's important for me.

What potential does communications technology have from an activist point of view?

Huge. And it's going to get bigger and bigger. There's no avoiding it. One of the key elements of activism is communication. But there's the old adage - it's not what you've got, it's how you use it.

email for advice.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

There Will Be Blood (15)

Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Based on 'Oil!' by Upton Sinclair
Screening at FACT from 15th February 2008

Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of Upton Sinclair's 1920s novel 'Oil!' has received almost uncritical critical attention, and has been nominated for eight Oscars. There are undoubtedly many strongpoints, but also some significant weaknesses, most of which come from Anderson's gutting of his barely recognisable source material.

Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is an impossibly cartoonish nasty man, who sees "the worst in people" and builds-up pointless "hatreds", like it's some kind of hobby. So he becomes an oil baron, with the idea that he can get rich enough to eventually fully isolate himself from the rest of the world. He embarks on that journey into nothingness with his boy (Dillon Freasier), and paradoxically draws a vast multitude of people into his machinations.

The film certainly scores highly on atmospherics, from the moody soundtrack by Radiohead multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood to the equally foreboding cinematography of Robert Elswit. Day-Lewis and Paul Dano - who plays his character's arch nemesis, the fire and brimstone preacher Eli Sunday - add to this, with their haunting performances in the lead roles. But all this is like the icing and cherries on top of a cake that doesn't exist.

There's no doubt we live in dark and threatening times, and pessimism is a very understandable reaction to that. Anderson's best known previous work, 1999's Magnolia, was a frank and often beautifully touching look at our fractured and decaying society. In Magnolia, people wanted to be 'good', they just couldn't find a way to do it, and felt trapped by their social circumstances. In There Will Be Blood, Anderson retreats into the lazy safety of damning humanity as some kind of disgusting evolutionary wrong turn, with no hope of saving itself.

Sinclair's 'Oil!' was a far richer work, with characters who were far better drawn, dialogue that made some kind of sense, and plots that had great social significance. A proper adaptation of that novel would inevitably have important things to say about modern society, in a world where the black gold has never been more important. Instead, Anderson apparently decided that "it would be horrible to make a political film or anything like that. Tell a nasty story and let the rest take care of itself.”

In the end, there is blood. People get up, leave, and mutter about how depressed they feel.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Women To Widdecombe: "Get Your Rosaries Off Our Ovaries"

A group of about sixty protesters - three quarters of whom were female - showed up at the Liner Hotel in Liverpool City Centre last night, to show their anger at Ann Widdecombe's anti-abortion 'Passion For Life' tour.

The Human Embryology and Fertilisation Bill currently going through Parliament is intended to reform the laws on reproductive technology, which haven't been updated since 1990. However, a cross-party coalition of mainly Christian politicians wants to table amendments which would restrict a woman's freedom to get an abortion.

Under the plans - sponsored by Passion For Life speakers Widdecombe and Lord David Alton - women would only be able to get an abortion within the first twenty-one weeks of pregnancy, down from twenty-four at present. Also, women would still have to get permission from two doctors to have the procedure, instead of midwives and nurses as some pro-choice campaigners are demanding.

The speaking tour is an attempt to rally Christian support behind amendments, ironically on pseudo-scientific grounds - ie. that medical advances have now made it possible for prematurely born babies to survive from that much earlier. However, Alton and Widdecombe backed a similar (but unsuccessful) Bill in 1987, restricting the limit to eighteen weeks, and as she makes clear: "Most of us believed in no abortion at all", so "to reach the North Pole you have to take one step beyond your own front door". Clearly, this is just the first step for Widdecombe and her allies, and it is important that they face massive opposition.

At the beginning of Tuesday's demonstration, police cleared a pathway through the crowd with dogs, horses, and a lot of shoving. Their task was made relatively easy by the fact that there was a big gap between protesters on the front line and those behind, and police were able to push us into that empty space. Eventually, after a few minutes of pushing and threats, the police reinforced their cordon and Widdecombe supporters began entering the building.

Chants of "Not the church, not the state, women must decide their fate", "Pro-life is a lie, you don't care if women die" and "get your rosaries off our ovaries" were kept up for an hour and a half, before
people began to realise that Widdecombe herself was not going to make an appearance, and must have gone in early to avoid a confrontation.

This was the fourth stop on Widdecombe and Alton's eight meeting tour of the UK, and a similar protest in Glasgow saw Socialist Worker claim 'a fantastic boost' for the campaign to defend abortion rights. At best, this is wishful thinking. At worst, it is the usual SWP opportunism. The state has long tolerated demonstrations within strictly defined limits, and strategists are well aware that they have they effect of allowing campaigners to let off steam harmlessly. Five years ago, over a million people marched through London to demand that Bush and Blair stop threatening to invade Iraq. It was the largest protest this country has yet seen, and it did nothing to change the politicians' minds. History has shown that freedom cannot be defended by appealing to our masters, or even shouting at them for a couple of hours. As attacks on liberty accelerate, new tactics must inevitably be developed.

If you want to make a date with Ann Widdecombe, she will be at The Foundry in Widnes on Monday 18th February, and The City Temple in Cardiff on Tuesday 4th March.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

1937: Battle of Jarama Begins

On 6th February 1937, the Battle of Jarama began, between the Spanish Republic and the fascist forces of General Franco. During the three weeks of fighting, seventeen or eighteen Merseyside volunteers with the International Brigades would be killed – nearly two thirds of the region’s casualties from the entire war.

The Jarama river was strategically important, since it was very close to a major city, Madrid. Franco’s forces had failed to take the city by storm a few months earlier, and so the general planned to cut it off by crossing the river, and breaking a communication chain with the Republican capital, Valencia.

Volunteers from a claimed fifty-three nations formed the International Brigades. Those who signed up either sympathised with one or more of the radical groups trying to reorganise life in republican Spain, or were just acutely aware of the danger that the rise of fascism would pose for the whole world.

It is not known precisely when each of the Merseyside recruits were killed, but it seems likely that many met their end between the 12th and the 14th. On the morning of the 12th, under the command of Tom Wintringham, the British Battalion was moved up to the heights overlooking Jarama, at Arganda. Facing the superior weapons and training of the Army of Africa (fascist troops from Morocco), they sustained many casualties, especially on the 12th. However, a serious tactical error by the fascists allowed the International Brigades to reclaim the ground they lost on the 12th, and both sides were entrenched by the 14th. Though many anti-fascists were killed in the Jarama battle, they prevented a major advance by the fascist counterrevolution.

The Merseyside volunteers killed in the Battle of Jarama were:

R. Beadles (Birkenhead), L. Bibby (Birkenhead), W. Bogle (Liverpool), W. Giles (Liverpool), E. Jackman (Liverpool), T. Killick (Southport), R. Kirk (Liverpool), G. McEwen* (Liverpool), G. McKeown* (Liverpool), J. Newman (Liverpool), J. Norbury (Liverpool), F. Norton (Liverpool), T. O'Brien (Liverpool), J. Owens (Liverpool), Tommy Silcock (Liverpool), J. Stewart (Wallasey), J. Walsh (Liverpool)

* May be same person

Sunday, February 03, 2008

1911: Robert (Tressell) Noonan Dies In Liverpool

Robert Noonan (better known by his pen name of Robert Tressell) died in Liverpool Royal Infirmary with his novel ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ (full text here) still unpublished. However, his work would live on long after him, and inspire generations of socialists with its simple but profound analysis that ‘money is the cause of poverty’.

Noonan came from a reasonably wealthy background. His ‘illegitimate’ protestant father was high up in the Royal Irish Constabulary, and Robert was provided with what his daughter called “a very good education” and learned several languages. At the age of sixteen, his burgeoning radicalism became apparent when he declared he wouldn’t “live on the family income derived largely from absentee landlordism”. It was then he took the name Noonan from his mother’s side.

He then moved to South Africa, where he became a painter and decorator (frequently using a trestle table). After an unhappy and short marriage in Cape Town, he moved to Johannesburg, where he got quite a well-paid job with a construction company. Despite his relatively decent conditions, he picked up a lot of material here how the ‘logic’ of the profit system affects the construction trade, ammunition he would later use in his novel. In 1898, he helped form the ‘Irish Brigade’, which took up arms alongside the Boers and against the British in that bloody colonial conflict. It is unclear whether Robert himself fought, but somehow or other he ended-up in Hastings, Sussex by the turn of the century. There he became a signwriter, and suffered far worse treatment than during his South Africa work. His politics seemed to have turned rightwards at this time, and like many on the left he was taken in by anti-German propaganda. He even designed aircraft, but the War Office rejected his ideas.

It was at this point that Noonan became influenced by the ideas of Marxist crafts enthusiast William Morris (author of the utopian novel News From Nowhere), and joined the Social Democratic Federation. However, his health was beginning to fail, and he developed tuberculosis. He then wrote The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, but its 1,600 pages was turned down by three different publishers. Noonan became very depressed, and decided to emigrate to Canada. However, he only made it as far as Liverpool, and was buried in a mass paupers’ grave in Walton cemetery.

Noonan’s daughter showed the manuscript to the writer Jessie Pope, who submitted it to her own publisher, and the rights to a much abridged version were bought for £25. The combination of political analysis and pathos, with its cast of cast of working class ‘philanthropists’ and the ‘brigands’ who preyed on them, has won it a devoted following for almost one hundred years. Though conditions have improved for workers in Britain (thanks to dedicated struggle rather than the philanthropy of the brigands), the essential structure of capitalist society is the same, and many of the conditions described in Noonan’s book are very similar to those which workers in the majority world now face.

In 1999, my granddad - himself a veteran of workers’ struggles and an Old Labour-style socialist - gave me his old, battered, but much-loved copy of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. As I read it, I found that Noonan had brought together many of the ideas I had been pondering for a while about the nature of capitalist society. By the tragic end of the final chapter, I had resolved to do what I could to help bring down the profit system.

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