Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Dispossessed

Ursula Le Guin (1974)
'For we each of us deserve everything, every luxury that was piled in the tombs of the dead kings, and we each of us deserve nothing, not a mouthful of bread in hunger. Have we not eaten while another starved? Will you punish us for that? Will you reward us for the virtue of starving while others ate? No man earns punishment, no man earns reward. Free your mind of the idea of deserving, the idea of earning, and you will begin to be able to think.'

This is my second Le Guin novel (after The Left Hand Of Darkness), and I'm well impressed with her so far. I'm not really into science fiction, but I am when it is used to explore different philosophies and ways of living. In this one, Le Guin takes on perhaps the biggest change from our current way of life that anyone could imagine - anarchism - and more or less pulls it off.

The central character is Shevek, a physicist from the anarchist planet of Annarres. This world is running into some problems, mainly because it's basically shit in terms of resources, so this creates scarcity which communists on Earth hope we wouldn't have to worry about. He becomes a rebel against anarchism, not in a 'propertarian' way - like on the planet Urras - but in a purely anarchist way.

Some socialist utopias (William Morris' News From Nowhere being the most cloying example) are so abundant and happy that they're basically unreadable by anyone living in a capitalist society (although I have to say NFN is a repeat guilty pleasure). Here, Le Guin gets round that problem with her use of the aforementioned dusty, shit planet.

Does that mean fiction couldn't exist in a communist society, without the dramatic crucible of material scarcity? Maybe, but I wouldn't be too worried about that should I ever see live to see it. I'd be enjoying the absence of walls too much.

1919: Communist Mary Bamber wins Everton Ward for Labour

On 21st May 1919, Mary Bamber won the Everton ward in the council elections, standing for the Labour Party.

Her win was remarkable for a couple of reasons. Not only was she a Communist who sympathised with the Russian revolution, but she was also a woman. Following years of agitation by the suffragettes - amongst whom Bamber was a prominent campaigner - the post-war government of David Lloyd George had finally extended the vote to women over the age of thirty. No women were elected to Parliament in the 1918 general election, so Bamber must have been one of the first females to be elected in Britain.

Sylvia Pankhurst described Bamber as the “finest, fighting platform speaker in the country”, and her election in the former Orange stronghold of Everton was only one landmark amongst many in a remarkable life of struggle.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Hearts and Minds

Red Dot Exhibitions
Liverpool Academy Of Arts, Seel Street (7th-23rd May, Mon-Fri 12pm-4pm)

The Red Dot collective's latest exhibition is a curious thing. All the artists on display have high levels of technical skill, but many retreat so far into abstraction that they exclude the viewer from having any meaningful interaction with their work, almost by definition.

Red Dot has always focused on abstract work, but somehow it has always seemed to be more evocative than much of the current batch, which is uniformly well done, but mostly uninspiring. However, several of the pieces stand out.

The art of John O'Neill is totally absorbing, as always. Alongside a painting I'd seen before - his Grosvenor-baiting 'Grand Old Duke of Regeneration' - there is another piece, 'Scouserazzi'. Like the German New Objectivists George Grosz and Otto Dix almost a century ago, O'Neill is consistently impressive in his ability to create biting, nightmare worlds, which are instantly recognisable as parts of Liverpool.

Another oil painter, Alice Lenkiewicz's 'Nocturnal' series is another highlight. Though far more abstract that O'Neill, her material retains a definite mood, which can be appreciated or not by the viewer. As the name suggests, the colours are mostly dark, and suggested a drizzly dusk to me.

Jon D Nash contributes six pieces, but the most striking is his '4 Years at 20 a day' installation. Almost thirty thousand cigarettes spell out a stern warning to those thinking of taking up the habit. It is for sale, like all the other works, but the financial cost of Nash's smoking has been a head-spinning £14,955.00.

The best art has always been about self-indulgence. In an essay on the role of the artist, Oscar Wilde claimed that 'Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known'. If that is true, then abstract artists must be the most individualistic of them all, since the idea of content and meaning is often forgotten, and form takes precedence. But artists and gallerygoers both inhabit a social world; they win and lose, experience pleasure and pain, love and hate. In an important sense, if artwork does not express this, it isn't self-expression at all, and the viewer has nothing to cling to beyond geometry. Though hearts are actually muscles that pump blood around the body, there is nowhere near enough 'heart' in this exhibition.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

1949: Paul Robeson visits Liverpool and sings to 10,000 crowd in Lord Street

On 7th May 1949, the singer, film actor and communist Paul Robeson drew a crowd of around ten thousand to an impromptu outdoor concert in Lord Street. The event had been proposed on the morning, and took place in the afternoon.

Click here for the full article from Nerve magazine.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Quiggins Owner Backs BNP!

In a move that will stun many in Merseyside's 'alternative' sub-culture, Quiggins co-owner Pete Tierney has publicly declared his support for the far right British National Party, giving his longstanding slogan of 'save our culture' a sinister new connotation.

Posting on his YouTube channel three days before council elections in which the BNP were standing several candidates locally, Tierney told viewers that he had "fought hard" to maintain the "cultural identity" of Liverpool, but had become "disillusioned" with the "LibLabCon" of mainstream politics. "The tsunami's coming", he declared, "and it's called BNP".

Many of Tierney's former backers will not doubt react with disgust and disbelief when they discover who his new pals are. But despicable though it is, there's a definite political logic to his decision. After all, he's certainly not the first small business owner who's turned to fascism. Historically it has been the Pete Tierneys of this world that have bankrolled fascist movements, hoping for protection against big business. However, when fascists get into power, they inevitably turn against their former backers, as they struggle to run a capitalist economy in crisis.

The Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative big business parties have each played a part in Quiggins' demise. It was the Lib Dem council who drew up the Bluecoat Triangle Plan as part of their successful Capital Of Culture bid. This meant that the Quiggins market in School Lane would have to be demolished, to make way for the Liverpool One project of the Tory aristocratic Duke of Westminster. In May 2004, the Labour government backed this proposal, and Quiggins closed its doors on 1st July 2006. Since then, Tierney has been looking for a permanent city centre site, and sought the lease on the former John Lewis store on Church Street. Unfortunately for him, the ever-expanding Rapid Hardware beat him to this piece of property.

The 2008 Capital Of Culture award has tightened the grip of big capital on Liverpool. Small business has felt itself increasingly marginalised. However - as this revelation demonstrates - working people cannot defend small business without playing into the hands of the most reactionary interests. Our culture is not something that can be bought from a shop, no matter how 'alternative' that shop seems to be. It has to be created in opposition to the profit system.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

1912: Strike at Wilson's Bobbin Works, leading to the 'Garston Riots'

On 4th May 1912, a strike began at Wilson's Bobbin Works in the Garston area of Liverpool. The dispute was to last until August, and won widespread support from the local community, resulting in riots when scab labour was brought in to cross the picket lines.

Less than a year before, Liverpool had seen its own mini general strike, centred on the docks and transport, which had paralysed the city's commerce for much of the summer, and caused massive police brutality. The two thousand bobbin workers - many of whom were female - must have taken great inspiration from this struggle.

Click here for the full article from Nerve magazine.

436,000 Liverpool Residents Snub May Day March

Imagine a May Day march with no chants, no demands, and very few banners. Who'd want to go to that? What if the keynote speaker was a parasitic class collaborator, who had recently sold out tens of thousands of workers? Would that inspire anyone? Not really.

So no surprise that only a handful of dedicated people joined the Trades Union Congress' annual death march, which is in effect nothing more than a sedate procession commemorating our ongoing defeat at the hands of the profit system.

The diehards proceeded from the Casa pub on Hope Street to the Victoria Monument in Derby Square. There they joined a small group of people who had been listening to live music.

The first speech - delivered by journalist and campaigner Ewa Jasiewicz - was by far the most inspirational. This can be put down to two factors. Firstly, she read statements of solidarity from Iraqi trade unionists, who are in constant danger of attack from both the US-led occupation and various sectarian militia. Secondly, because Jasiewicz read it with considerable passion, something a million miles away from the calculated platitudes of the bureaucrats who shared the stage with her. "We look forward to the day when we have a world based on co-operation and solidarity", the declaration ended, "We look forward to a world free from war, sectarianism, competition and exploitation".

By contrast, the addresses of Communication Workers Union bureaucrats Billy Hayes and Jane Loftus were exercises in sickening hypocrisy, only a mile from the Copperas Hill local base of the strike the pair sold out just half a year ago. Last July, General Secretary Hayes gave a speech in the city, and described Royal Mail’s proposed new contract as a "carve up" between Royal Mail bosses and their "rich mates". He then spent the next few months working with those bosses to control and undermine the resulting industrial action (including wildcat strikes in Liverpool), and compelling the postal workers to accept almost exactly the same appalling terms and conditions originally offered. In fact Hayes' rambling May Day speech was remarkable only for the fact that he did not mention the dispute at all! Certainly, none of the Copperas Hill workers seemed to have been there to cheer him on!

The next speaker was Maureen (no surname was given), an asylum seeker originally from Nigeria, who declared that she was "so glad to hear that there's something like solidarity in the United Kingdom". She appealed for help with her case, and support for "human rights" generally.

The contribution of CWU President and Socialist Workers Party member Loftus was perhaps even more two-faced than that of her general secretary. Though she voted against the settlement during the negotiation process, she did not alert postal workers to the sellout that was being prepared in their name. Even when the deal had been agreed and was put to a vote of the CWU membership, this supposed 'revolutionary' did not speak out against it. At Thursday's rally, Loftus only dedicated a few words to the massive struggle her union had taken part in, and did nothing to shed light on her own role in bringing about a massive defeat for postal workers.

The address by Steve Farley was almost entirely nondescript and unmemorable. In a year when the government has handed his Public and Commercial Services union members an effective pay cut, he had nothing of any substance to say beyond the empty buzzwords of "solidarity" and "socialism", and the invoking of former 'glories' such as the rule of the Militant-led council in Liverpool.

There is nothing less radical than the endless repeating of cliches, especially when they are not followed through with sustained and coordinated action. Apart from Ewa Jasiewicz's contribution, all the platform contributions were so vague as to be interchangeable with those made at countless other May Day rallies. This is poisonous, because its effect is to alienate people from a day which originated as a festival of resistance. There is never any analysis of why we are getting hammered, there is just the endless repetition of the fact that we are. This breeds hopelessness, and helps explain the diminishing turnouts.

Every object that is sold or distributed on this planet, and every service offered, is the product of labour. Every penny that a boss makes off that labour is stolen from the person who actually did the work. The people who shape the world - the working class - allow it to be that way, because they feel isolated from each other and do not feel their true power. Anything which obscures this reality is part of the problem, not the solution.

Billy Hayes does not sort or deliver post. Instead, he lives off the membership fees of people who do. It is therefore in his interests for the CWU to have as many members as possible, but he knows that to achieve this he must make sure his members accept Royal Mail's drive for profitabilty, or else Royal Mail will bypass the union, more redundancies will be made, and he will lose his privileged position.

When production and distribution was largely organised on national lines, union members could force their leaders to extract significant concessions from the employers. However, production and distribution is more global with every passing day. This leads to cut-throat competition around the globe, with governments fighting to promise business leaders the best rates of profit. Trade union leaders are fully behind this drive for profits, because of their position relative to the workforce.

With the two notable exceptions of Ewa Jasiewicz and Maureen the asylum seeker, the platform at the Merseyside May Day 'rally' was covered by the decaying corpse of the trade union bureaucracy. The unfolding economic crisis is truly global, and will require international solidarity on a scale that has yet to be seen. Very few of the Liverpool people who will fight that fight were at the Thursday rally. The missing hundreds of thousands are part of the sleeping beauty which must be awakened by economic necessity. When the new working class movement comes, its May Day must sweep away the bureaucrats who keep us apart.

Click here for photos, video, and audio.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

1926: General Strike begins, solid in Liverpool

On 3rd May 1926, Britain's first - and so far only - general strike began, in solidarity against attacks on the wages and conditions of miners.

The government declared a state of emergency, and warships docked all around the country. HMS Ramillies and HMS Barham lurked ominously in the Mersey, while two battalions of troops were sent to Liverpool. Clearly, Britain’s second largest port was of great strategic importance.

Workers on Merseyside were among the best organised. Local activists had begun setting up a ‘council of action’ ten months before the strike, and had established a reliable network of communication. This was important, because most of the commercial presses had been stopped or severely restricted, and the Council of Action needed to let people know what was going on. Out of four million strikers, Merseyside provided about one hundred thousand. On the second day, the Council of Action reported that all engineers and shipyard workers on the Mersey were out. In Birkenhead and Wallasey, a group of strikers attacked the trams and brought them to a halt. Some people returned to work after a few days, while a strange alliance of unemployed and rich people became ‘blacklegs’ and crossed picket lines. But generally the strike was solid, and would probably have continued far beyond ten days, had the TUC leaders not negotiated a return to work with the government.

Click here for my full article from Nerve magazine. Click here for 'Ten Days In The Class War' - my timeline of Merseyside life during the general strike.

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