Thursday, March 20, 2008

2003: Central Liverpool blocked by demonstrations as Iraq war begins

On 20th March 2003, as the invasion of Iraq began thousands of miles away, central Liverpool was repeatedly blocked by large groups of angry protesters. School children, students, and the unemployed led the protests during working hours, but they were then joined by many others, including Celtic fans on their way to Anfield. The activity went on throughout the night, with anti-war graffiti being sprayed in many parts of Merseyside.

The first anti-war action of the day was a sit-down protest on Upper Parliament Street during rush hour. Police tried to intervene, but support from local residents made them back off.

The Stop The War Coalition had organised a city centre protest for noon, which met at the podium on Church Street. At about the same time, students and staff from the University of Liverpool began their march into the city centre, and were met by whole classes of school children, who had walked out of their lessons. By the time all the groups converged, there were hundreds of children taking part. Many of the protesters marched around town, chanting anti-war slogans. The police allowed this to take place, only clamping down when they approached The Strand, and the route was blocked by police horses and vans. Soon the word got round that there was a Ministry Of Defence building on Water Street, and that this must have been the reason for the police blockade, so some people made attempts to get through police lines, chanting 'Whose streets? Our streets!' and 'We all live in a terrorist regime' to the tune of The Beatles' 'Yellow Submarine'.

These protests went on all afternoon, with a constant flow of people joining and leaving. Away from the city centre, small workplace actions were also taking place. Forty Inland Revenue staff had walked out at lunch time, and delivered a letter of protest to Sefton Council, who had made clear they supported the invasion. Employees at the Department for Work and Pensions office on High Park Street in Toxteth had united with a few social services workers for a protest. Other Social Services staff in Fazakerly had walked out briefly. Lecturers at four Liverpool Community College sites had held protests.

At 17:00, people began to congregate for the day's main event. The numbers of protesters was quickly being swelled by people leaving work, while other workers were trying to make their way home. At this point, a large group of students made a break into Hanover Street, and started blocking traffic, and others followed. When the group reached Lime Street, a major arterial route was being clogged with protesters. The reason for doing this was clear in many people's minds. If the war was being fought over oil (like the 'no blood for oil' chants suggested), and cars ran on oil, then this was one way of attacking the war machine. It was unfortunate for people trying to get home, and some shouted at the protesters, but others sympathised with the action.

When all the police had backed up all the traffic that they could, the protest moved down to the Pier Head, where a silent 'die-in' was held. It was then on down to the Albert Dock, the Army Recruitment centre on James Street, the Queen Victoria statue in Derby Square, and back to Church Street.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Visions and Vindications: William Blake, Mary Wollstonecraft and the Radical Eighteenth Century

Second Year BA Drama students, Liverpool Hope University
Cornerstone gallery and theatre (13th-15th March 2008)

An interesting series of performances in the Cornerstone building at Hope University's Everton campus introduced the audience to some eighteenth century British radicals. The evenings included what were claimed to be the first ever stage dramatisations of William Blake's 'Visions of the Daughters of Albion'.

The first part of the show made full use of the Cornerstone's foyer, lobby and exhibition areas. A modern day female guide walked us through some kind of hall of living statues, where eighteenth century figures gave their views on men and women's relative places in society. An upper class dandy quoted the Bible as justification for female servitude, but Mary Wollstonecraft argued for equal rights, so that through education women could become 'companions' to their husbands; more than just property. A female follower attacked the slave trade, before Thomas Paine thundered against the unjust and illogical nature of a monarchist system.

This was very much the world that William Blake lived in. The quintessential Romantic era artist, he refused to compromise his poetry, his painting or his engravings, and often lived in poverty as a result, arguing that “where any view of Money exists Art cannot be carried on, but war only”. He detested the rapid industrialisation that was going on around him, and the growth in the power of church and state that it made necessary. For Blake, this seemed like the enslavement of nature itself, and he longed for a great rebellion that would set humanity back in balance with the rest of Creation. Like many Romantics, he invested great hope in the American and French revolutions, the most democratic dreams of which were embodied in Paine.

It was at this time that Blake wrote the 'Proverbs of Hell' - a selection of which was presented here - and 'Visions...'. All his work is highly symbolic, and this piece uses supernatural characters with obscurely referenced names to act-out human drama. At root, however, it is about Blake's belief that the new nation of America would break free from the chains of British (Albion) society, and bring about a perfect and natural way of living, where women would achieve equality, and become able to fully express their own sexuality. Of course, his wishes for the revolutions were never fulfilled, as they both marked a new stage of industrialisation and the development of capitalism in the respective countries.

The Drama students' interpretation of 'Visions...' was quite limited, relying on the collective positions of the twenty performers onstage, rather than many individual movements. It was mostly non-representational too, so little meaning could be teased out, and those in the audience unfamiliar with the work must have struggled to keep up. However, Blake's poetry was delivered well, both by the main protagonists and most of the class. This was their first full production, so with a little more Blakeian imagination, they could turn out to be talented performers.

Friday, March 14, 2008

"Go on, get out - last words are for fools who haven't said enough."

As I'm sure you know from all the documentaries, newspaper articles and insightful analysis (sarcastic? me?), today it is one hundred and twenty five years since Karl Marx angrily uttered perhaps the greatest 'famous last words' of all time. Thanks to Marx and Coca-Cola for reminding me.

It is only about eight and half trips round the sun since I read The Communist Manifesto for the first time, and opened my eyes to the world of Marx. Or rather, to the world, because they are one and the same thing. He says all this complicated stuff, but it's actually really simple. In a sane, communist, society it would surely be 'common sense', but in this profit-driven one we are taught a ridiculous array of myths and legends before we can even raise a voice to object. I read Marx and Marxists a lot, but my understanding of Marxism is deepened every day, by every single interaction I see or take part in.

As Engels observed at his friend's funeral:
Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case.
He's a century and a quarter dead. He's trees, he's grass, he's flowers. But he gave us the keys to the universe, so rattle your chains in his memory anyway. You have nothing to lose...

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Liverpool Women Reclaim The Night...Sort Of

On Saturday night, about forty women and some male supporters marched from St George's Plateau on Lime Street around the city centre, returning to the Adelphi hotel for some entertainment. The Reclaim the Night demonstration is thought to be the first in the city for almost thirty years, and took place on International Women's Day.

However, even though the women on the march vastly outnumbered the men, who largely kept to the back, some men had placed themselves in prominent positions of control. There was no police 'escort', but all except one of the stewards were male, including Merseyside TUC President Alec McFadden, who led from the front and used his megaphone to urge people on and make jokes. All of this seemed to detract from the normal stated purpose of Reclaim The Night marches, of women marching together to dispel patriarchal notions of darkened streets being unsafe for women.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

1923: Labour wins first Liverpool Parliamentary seat

On 6th March 1923, the Labour Party won its first Liverpool seat in the House of Commons, as John Henry Hayes defeated his Conservative opponent Tom White in an Edge Hill by-election.

The vote was triggered when incumbent Tory William Watson Rutherford resigned, and the result was something of a shock to many at the time. Even though Liverpool had been the scene of militant working class action for decades, it had never elected a candidate to Parliament who claimed to represent the interests of working people. Conservatives dominated, there had been a handful of Liberals, and the Irish Nationalist T.P. O’Connor had represented Liverpool Scotland for almost forty years.

Indeed, Ireland played a large role in this campaign. The Conservative candidate, a local councillor, was also a prominent member of Liverpool’s Orange Lodge. He fought on the issues of religion and Ulster – which had been separated from the Irish Free State for just three months – receiving backing from the local Orange Grand Master, who declared that it was ‘the bounden duty’ of all Orangemen to elect ‘their tried and trusted friend’.

Edge Hill rejected this sectarianism however, and elected Hayes by 2,471, on a swing of 4.6%. He went on to survive a general election campaign eight months later, and held the seat for eight years. Liverpool West Toxteth elected the city’s second Labour MP, Joseph Gibbins, in 1924.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Vauxhall Staff Wildcat In Ellesmere Port...Again!

Around five hundred staff at the Vauxhall plant in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, are reported to have walked out yesterday, over rumours that the company plan to axe 460 jobs.

The workers left their positions in the press room - where panels are pressed into the required shape - at 11am on Tuesday. When their shift ended at 2pm, work is said to have resumed.

It is the second wildcat against Vauxhall in Ellesmere Port in two years. June 2006 saw another unofficial walkout, after management announced plans to cut 900 jobs. At the time, the union bureaucrats of Amicus and TGWU condemned the workers' action, and urged restraint as they 'negotiated' with the bosses. In the end, the jobs were lost, and the union pursued an impotent 'buy British' campaign. British consumers - who are also workers at the end of the day - are not going to pay more for a car because a trade union waves a flag in their faces.

Though TGWU is now part of the larger Unite union, the essential contradictions between rank-and-file worker, union bureaucrat, and bosses have not changed, so we can expect to see a similar situation develop.

Similar fights are going on around the world. In the US last autumn, a long strike by the United Auto Workers against General Motors was sold out by the bureaucrats, who agreed to slash conditions in return for getting their hands on a pension scheme which will make the already comfortable union tops very wealthy indeed. Currently, workers at American Axle & Manufacturing are striking against a 50% wage cut.

In an ever more globalised profit system, workers from every corner of the globe are set against each other in a race to the bottom of the barrel in terms of wages and conditions. Trade union leaders in each country help the bosses, by promising to get more and more out of workers for less and less wages. It is only by uniting with rank-and-file workers' organisations around the globe, and attacking the basis of the profit system, that workers can put an end to this downward spiral.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Richard Dawkins

University Of Liverpool Public Lecture Series
Liverpool Philharmonic Hall (28th February 2008)

As far as academic ape descendents go, Richard Dawkins is a very interesting one. He must be, because when he gave a lecture at the Philharmonic, almost 1,600 of his fellow homo sapiens packed into the venue, and a few more stayed outside, waving placards and protesting that he was making 'a monkey' out of people.

Dawkins began with a kind of evolutionary theory 101, which I suspect was pretty basic stuff to everyone inside the hall, although those placard wavers could have done with a primer. Alas, he was giving an ironic new meaning to the phrase 'preaching to the converted'.

The second half of Dawkins' performance was more intriguing, as he moved into the territory he explored in his controversial 2006 bestseller The God Delusion. The professor of biology turned intellectual stand-up comedian as he pointed out absurdity after absurdity in religious belief. For example, why is okay to call four-year-olds 'Christian', 'Muslim' or 'Jewish', when it would be considered ridiculous to describe them as 'liberal', 'conservative' or 'neo-Marxist'? And how can we sleep at night when so many Americans believe that the world is 6,000 years old, a misjudgement equivalent to imagining it's only 7.8 yards from New York to San Francisco?

Dawkins hopes that atheism can advance through this kind of 'consciousness raising', and drew a parallel with the feminist movement of the last century. But this is clearly a poor comparison. Ideas don't become popular just because people come across them. Ideas about sexual equality predate the 1900s, but it wasn't until then that society had developed enough for them to be given anything like a decent hearing. Indeed, many women came to realise they were being discriminated against without reading Mary Wollstonecraft or hearing about the suffragettes. They examined their own lives, and came to their own conclusions. The Christian protesters were outside the Philharmonic for a reason.

But what was that reason? After Dawkins had finished his lecture, he took questions from the audience. Drawing on his work on genetics, one woman asked him what evolutionary advantage a capacity for religious belief gives an individual. The professor answered that it probably isn't an advantage in itself, but could be the by-product of an adaptation that is advantageous.

There may well be some truth in this. But what that doesn't explain is why people with the strongest religious belief tend to be those with the least to thank their God for in terms of their position on Earth. Why is it that on a global level, people in the poorest countries seem to be the most devout? In this wealthy yet horrifically unequal nation, Christianity is in steep decline, but why are those who are 'born again' almost always coming through some kind of life crisis? Genetics in its current form cannot fully address these questions.

Dawkins' 1976 biologist's bible The Selfish Gene does seem to offer some clues, although he backed away from making sociologically radical conclusions at the time. Contrary to popular belief, the title doesn't refer to a 'gene for selfishness', but rather to the idea that genes themselves are ‘selfish’, pursuing their own reproduction. Organisms from the earliest single-celled ones onwards have adapted to their material environments, and that has resulted in us, here and now. You are a ‘survival machine’ for your genes that is reading this review because it seems like the best strategy for your genetic replication.

The same logically applies to being part of a religious community. It might turn out to be a bad strategy, but the important thing is that it seems like the best strategy to the religious person. Until their circumstances change enough for another strategy to apparently suit better, they will continue to follow it, down whatever road that takes them. With that in mind, it is a bit grubby, sneering and sanctimonious to look down on believers in the way that Dawkins seems to.

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