Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Capitalism: A Love Story (12A)

Written and directed by Michael Moore

Since achieving international fame with his documentary examination of the U.S. gun culture (Bowling For Columbine) seven years ago, Michael Moore has gone on to look at the 'war on terror' (Fahrenheit 9/11), and the wretched for-profit American healthcare system (Sicko). Finally, the Wall Street Crash of 2008 has compelled him to stop "hacking at the branches" - to quote Henry David Thoreau - and instead begin "striking at the root" of these problems: capitalism itself.

However, Moore's blows are very much hit and miss.

As always, he succeeds on an emotional level. We see a Carolina family filming their own eviction, at the hands of seven carloads of cops. We meet a widow who was accidentally informed that her husband's employers were cashing in on his demise - they apparently took out secret 'dead peasant' life insurance on him, and raked in $1.5 million. We learn how two Pennsylvania judges received millions in kickbacks from the owners of the privatised juvenile detention system, and incarcerated children for 'offences' such as setting up a parody website. Moore clearly has deep sympathy for those who suffer under the profit system, and by default this sets him apart from almost all mass media.

Unfortunately, Moore still fails as a thinker. He offers no definition of capitalism, and muddies the waters by allowing religious figures time to label it an 'evil'. Neither does he try to explain the structural causes of the current economic crisis. Indeed his stunts - which include sealing off bank headquarters with crime scene tape - actually reduce the social problem to the level of individual behaviour, much as capitalist 'justice' does.

Most disheartening of all for the concerned viewer, Moore does not suggest any clear way out of this mess. And okay, he doesn't directly claim that the Democrats can solve anything, but at times he seems to shield Obama from reasonable criticism (for the part he played in the pre-election $700 bank bailout, for example). Late on he raises the ghost of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who used the U.S.'s world dominance to save the country's elite from itself during the last great depression, but Moore certainly doesn't include that context.

These are very different times from the 1930s, and the U.S. empire is on the wane. We are in the midst of a global catastrophe which only the organised international working class can solve. For that reason, it is the brief sequences from inside the occupied Republic Windows and Doors factory which are by far the most inspiring.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Rage at Number One: The Cultural Revolution Starts Here?

Something which seemed unthinkable only a few weeks ago has just happened. 'Killing In The Name', a 1992 song about police brutality and racism has beaten the X Factor and Simon Cowell to the Christmas number one. The final festive chart topper of the decade is by fiercely radical rap metal group Rage Against The Machine. It's a story that has captured the public imagination, and captivated the corporate mass media. But what is the significance - if any - of this event, and what does it say about the future of campaigning in the age when internet social networking has met deep economic recession?

When the 'campaign' began in November, many treated it as a light-hearted joke. Jon Morter (a DJ), and his wife Tracy (an astrophysics graduate turned gig photographer) apparently launched the 'Rage Against The Machine For Christmas No. 1' Facebook group to make a point about the commercialisation of pop music, and the monotony of Cowell's charges getting to number one for each of the previous four years.

"It's a rallying cry," Jon told about the choice of song. "It’s been taken on by thousands in the group as a defiance to Simon Cowell's 'music machine'. Some certainly do see it as a direct response to him personally. If that's what they take out of that song, then that's fine for them. We've nothing personal against him at all, we just do not want yet another Christmas chart-topper from that show again."

However, the 'joke' soon became serious as the week leading up to the Christmas chart came round, and Facebook users joined the group in their hundreds of thousands. By 7 pm on the Sunday, almost a million had joined the party.

So what does this all mean? First, let's take a look at the songs. In the blue corner sits Joe McElderry, winner of the X Factor, a prime time Saturday night karaoke contest/enormous focus group, the final of which was seen by eighteen million people - approaching a third of the UK population. 'His' song is 'The Climb', which was originally performed by teen superstar Miley Cyrus, in her guise as 'Hannah Montana'. That version was released just nine months ago by Walt Disney Records. A slow ballad, its lyrics are full of 'you can make it on your own' individualism, with lines about how "the struggles I'm facing" are "not breaking" the singer. It's hard to imagine a more blatantly commercial product.

In the red corner we have Rage Against The Machine, now veteran musicians whose 'bombtracks' have thrown down challenges to the powers that be ever since their 1992 debut. In the meantime they have supported radical resistance to the capitalist system, faced down police attack at the 2000 Democratic Convention, and - together with documentary maker Michael Moore and a group of fans - actually shut down the New York Stock Exchange for the day, a feat that can be seen in their video for 'Sleep Now In The Fire'. 'Killing In The Name', one of their earliest tracks, calls out "some of those who work forces", who also "burn crosses" - a reference to institutional police racism recorded in the wake of the videotaped police beating of Rodney King and the Los Angeles riots. As is now well known, it ends with the screamed refrain of "fuck you, I won't do what you tell me", a tirade which guaranteed near zero airplay, at least until recently.

It would be one thing if Sony Music - who own the Epic label that Rage are signed to - had decided to aggressively market this most unlikely of festive hits, and then hundreds of thousands had bought it. But it is the spontaneous, grassroots, and non-hierarchical nature of the 'rage4xmas' phenomenon which is arguably its most intriguing feature. Though the Morters have become unofficial mass media spokespeople for the movement, many thousands of individuals have played their own self-designated roles - whether that be through emailing requests to radio shows, rebutting online criticism (such as the Daily Telegraph's 'Rage Against the Machine v The X Factor: tragic isn't it?' article) or just persuading their friends to get involved. Typically, an individual would make a suggestion on the Facebook group, then many hundreds would instantly follow it up, overwhelming mainstream media switchboards and inboxes.

The sneering disgust and fear of the mob in the Telegraph's article typifies one pole of mainstream media response, the other being wry intrigue. While the right wing paper's TV features editor claimed that "a snowballing horde of simpletons" were propelling a "tone-deaf pretend-anarchist" to the top of the charts in a "dunderheaded pseudo-protest", the BBC was often more interested in the spectacle. The online BBC magazine even devoted a whole article to decoding the lyrics, suggesting that the explicit last section could be translated as: "Since I believe police officers and law-makers to be institutionally corrupt, I see no need to follow their instructions."

Of course, the success of the song certainly does not mean that all group members or downloaders hold such opinions. However, posters quickly developed a sense of group solidarity, often referring to each other as 'comrades' in the 'revolution'. Others described how they see Simon Cowell and the X Factor as being symbolic of the whole capitalist system, and the worship of profit at the cost of everything else. "Fuck you, I won't buy what you sell me" quickly became the group's rallying slogan. As slogans go, it's not a revolutionary one, but perhaps it does indicate inchoate disillusionment with the current set-up, and the production line X Factor world of elite winners and demoralised losers.

Rage's live performance on BBC 5 Live was censored on the 17th after the band didn't do as they were told, and swore on breakfast radio. But before the song was aired, lead vocalist Zack de la Rocha proclaimed that: "I think that it says something about the real tensions that people are experiencing all over the UK and in the United States as well, and i think that people would love to hear a song that reflects some of the tensions that they are experiencing in their daily lives."

Maybe, with no working class movement worthy of the name yet able to fight back against the recessionary ruling class onslaught, this is the initial form which anger is taking, within a generation raised to consume. Meanwhile, it has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that the internet - a tool given to us by advanced capitalist development - could potentially be used to resist the destruction which late capitalism necessarily brings.

Also published on the Mute magazine website.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Workers' Fightback - Czech Wildcats/Greece On Fire Again/California Fighting

Many people are getting ready to celebrate the season of 'peace on earth and good will to all men', but that doesn't mean there's any let-up in the class war. Instead, it is business as usual for 2009, with sporadic outbreaks of working class resistance meeting fierce resolve from the ruling establishment.

One group of car workers in the Czech Republic seem to have made a temporary gain, although Hyundai bosses are regrouping for a new year counter-attack. By all accounts, management have been cranking up the pressure on employees at the Nošovice factory this year, and a statement by a worker's husband on a Czech newspaper forum is surely reminiscent of what many have been feeling worldwide, as corporations and governments have turned the screw:
"The other day my wife came home, locked herself in a room and cried. When I came to her and asked what had happened, she told me little by little how things work there and what they have to endure. She’s been bottling it up inside her heroically for almost 7 months. I can’t understand how something like this is possible in our country. When I read statements of [Czech Hyundai spokesman] Petr Vaňek I feel like I’m about to vomit. Chicanery, humiliation, threats = this is where Mr Rakovský and Mr Vaněk are heading to."
On 1st December, the pressure erupted, and twenty workers left the welding shop, taking unofficial wildcat action against compulsory overtime, cuts to bonuses, and workplace harassment. The next day, staff at the nearby Hyundai subcontractor struck ever hour in solidarity. There was a much larger one hour strike on the 9th.

At the time of writing, it appears that Hyundai have abandoned the practice of compulsory overtime for the rest of the month. However, the company want to victimise those who struck on the 9th, and the whole contract will be renegotiated with union bureaucrats next month. Watch this space...

Twelve months ago, large areas of urban Greece were ablaze, as a spontaneous uprising of young people saw massive fights with police. It was touched off by the police killing of fifteen year old Alex Grigoropolous, but the movement had its roots in the desperate conditions facing many working class Greek youths. The 6th December anniversary of Alex's death saw more conflict, and massive police retaliation.

The 'conservative' government of Kostas Karamanlis did not survive the aftermath of the uprising, and was forced into an early general election. This was largely because the Greek elite did not believe his party could implement the drastic cuts needed to balance the budget in one of the economies worst hit by the economic collapse. Now 'socialist' PM George Papandréou has allowed the European Union to dictate a drastic austerity programme, which will ferociously tear into jobs, wages and conditions. Much more conflict is inevitable in the year ahead.

In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is talking tough on student resistance to his cuts agenda, and has labelled students' behaviour as "terrorism". This may be the first time the label has been applied to domestic opponents of the American ruling class since the 'war on terror' was declared in 2001. Having 'terminated' much of the California education budget, he has allowed universities to dramatically increase tuition fees, pricing many working class students out of higher education.

As has been reported previously, students have staged numerous protests and occupations. Last Friday however, up to seventy-five demonstrators are said to have surrounded Berkeley Chancellor Robert Bergenau’s mansion following a violent campus eviction, and eight were arrested for allegedly causing property damage, as well as fighting police. At least one activist disputes this version of events, but whatever the truth, Schwarzenegger denounced the attack on a rich man's property in the strongest terms, declaring: "California will not tolerate any type of terrorism against any leaders, including educators."

This provocative use of the 'T-word' has inflamed press coverage of a relatively minor incident, obscuring the reality that his policies - and those of elites around the world - are part of an unprecedented attack on working class living standards. If the beginnings of a global rebellion this year are any guide, it will not go unanswered in 2010.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Nerve 15 - 2010 Resistance Calendar

“Until the lions have their own story-tellers, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.” - Nigerian proverb

When we published our Merseyside Resistance Calendar in Nerve 11, we were overwhelmed by the positive response from people who had put it on their walls, been inspired to do some research, or had just found out something new about the city they had maybe lived in all their lives. In fact, lots of people wanted more, so this is what we’re giving you in Nerve 15.

Just like last time, the calendar is full of dates commemorating times when the ‘ordinary’ people of Liverpool stood up and took action for what they believed in. Because of struggles like these, great advances in living standards were often won from the rich and powerful, advances which have been attacked over recent decades, and particularly during this catastrophic economic crisis. The calendar features pictures old and new, and we’re confident they provide a thought-provoking collection which is a cut above the ‘business as usual’ calendars available elsewhere. And of course we’ve still got all the Nerve regulars, including artist profiles, book reviews and social issues opinion pieces.

History cannot be ‘neutral’ – it is the record of opposing forces battling it out - and the historian must either side with the oppressed or a section of the oppressors. At Nerve, we’re proud to stand with the ‘ordinary’ people who just happen to make the world - and Merseyside within it - go round.

Talking of history. We have reports that the New Museum of Liverpool Life will only have a small section devoted to the role played by workers in the making of the city. This museum started life as the Labour History Museum in 1986 with donations of artefacts from far and wide, reflecting our rich culture. It will be a shame if this is not recognised.

Have a great 2010, and make some history of your own.

The full index is here. The free magazine will be available from cultural venues, libraries, cafés and News From Nowhere, Liverpool's radical and community bookshop.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Workers' Fightback: Irish Public Sector Strike/Student Movement Grows

This week's update looks at struggles based outside the UK, but with profound implications for battles right around this ever more interconnected world.

Firstly, 24th November saw a one day general strike amongst public sector workers in the Republic of Ireland. Around a quarter of a million people are reported to have taken part, with teachers, lecturers, nurses, local authority workers, firefighters and civil servants striking against the Irish government's drastic proposed cuts to public service spending. Even police took industrial action short of a strike, by refusing routine tasks. Protests also took place in Northern Ireland, against Sinn Féin/Democratic Unionist administration proposals.

Ireland's economy was among the worst hit by the first wave of the global economic crisis. As in many other countries, the state and national bank funnelled massive amounts of taxpayers' money into backing the elite's gambling debts. The Bank of Ireland has already committed €16 billion to the Irish 'bad bank', and the Fianna Fáil /Green coalition plans to shift that debt onto the backs of the Irish working class, by slashing at least €4 billion from budgets, and enforcing a 7% tax on the pensions of public sector workers.

This dispute is significant for two main reasons. Firstly, although the Irish government's attacks on public spending are particularly severe, they are a foretaste of what other national governments are planning over the short and medium term. Secondly, they show that Irish trade union leaders - like their equivalents around the world - are siding with governments to impose the cuts that the super-rich demand. They only beg to be involved in negotiations, and for the pace of cuts to be slowed - stalling the momentum of grassroots opposition.

This is illustrated by a leaked letter written by Peter McLoone, boss of the IMPACT union. In it, McLoone warned union officials that: "In my judgment the alternative [to pay cuts] is likely to involve a significant reduction in public service numbers over the next three to four years, with the likelihood that some additional exceptional measures will also be needed in 2010 to deal with the budgetary crisis next year."

As the fight against cuts escalate, workers in all nations must discover that they have far more in common with each other than with their national ruling elites - trade union leaders included.

Another truly worldwide struggle is for decent university education. On a global scale, the neoliberal university has been in formation for the past few decades, and this process is accelerating under the crash conditions. Movements continue to build in California, Austria and Germany, where occupations have freed up space for much debate and discussion, potentially helping to radicalise many young people, who are making the connection between banker bailouts and student/worker poverty. An Austrian student statement explains:
"These events are connected to the worldwide development of social movements. In this sense what is being fought for is not only better working conditions for students, teachers and other university personnel – rather it’s a fight for better working conditions across all sectors and borders."
Similarly, a Californian communique announces:
"November 2009, this is what is happening: we have found each other, and we are learning to act, finally. This means developing close bonds, learning what it truly is to say ‘comrade’; someone who shares your conditions, shares your enemies, and who you trust with your life. Someone who knows that it is always necessary to take sides. We have learned what it means to say we."

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Union Sell-outs - Disbelief and Dialectics

Many postal workers and their supporters were left disgusted and disbelieving on Bonfire Night. Billy Hayes and his Communication Workers Union executive had unanimously voted to sabotage a series of strikes which enjoyed widespread support, and guaranteed there would be no strikes until after Christmas. What's more, they had gained nothing concrete in return. When the new year comes around, Royal Mail will still be looking to make thousands of workers redundant, and attack the conditions of those that remain. In the meantime, posties are already facing a meagre festive period, having lost hundreds and even thousands of pounds in wages on the picket lines.

A message on the 'I Support the Postal Workers!' Facebook group summed up the thoughts and feelings of many:
"All the postal workers in Stevenage are furious at the strike being called off. They feel that Royal Mail have got what they wanted eg mail being delivered for Xmas. As soon as Xmas is out of the way Royal Mail will be pushing the changes through and not giving a stuff about the workers. Some feel that they have lost wages for nothing."
But if Hayes and his team of bureaucrat fat cats had done anything other than cave in to Royal Mail demands, I'd have been forced to examine my whole outlook on life. Yes, I was disgusted, but very far from disbelieving. Of course, that's all very easy to say with the benefit of hindsight, but then I warned that posties were "...lined up against Royal Mail bosses, the Labour government, and the leaders of their own Communication Workers Union" on October 25th, ten days before the 'interim deal' was announced.

So what is it that makes me so annoyingly good (annoying to myself, that is) at predicting political developments? Well, it's a tool called 'historical materialism', which is the philosophical basis of Marxist thinking. If you want, you can go off and Google how Marx stood Hegel's dialectic on its head, but for my purposes here, I'll quote Marx from The Holy Family, which I think neatly summarises his view of how historical events unfold:
"History does nothing, it does not possess immense riches, it does not fight battles. It is men, real, living men, who do all this, who possess things and fight battles. It is not 'history' which uses men as a means of achieving - as if it were an individual person - its own ends. History is nothing but the activity of men in pursuit of their ends."
That is the quote, in all its simple glory. People can best be understood as pursuing "their ends", their material interests. The appreciation of this idea sets Marxism apart from the opportunism of pseudo-leftists, the 'moral' pleading of liberal pressure groups, and the utopian anti-authoritarianism of certain anarchist strains.

Once I grasped it however many years ago, this ideology-free way of looking at the world seemed like a kind of uncommon 'common sense'. It follows from this theory that the CWU executive decided to end the strike not because they really think "workers will get real benefits from the modernisation of the business", but because they believed it would be in their own individual best interests. As a Marxist, I learned to mentally put myself in the shoes of the protagonists - as a detective might - examining the way social forces impact on the choices open to people, and the way the "pursuit of their ends" leads them to make certain choices.

Let's take Billy Hayes then, suspected of crimes against the postal workers he claims to represent. The first thing to note is that he no longer sorts or delivers post. His job - which puts (presumably high quality) food on his table and (presumably expensive) clothes on his back - is to be the general secretary of the Communication Workers Union. He is well rewarded for this, receiving a pay package worth £97,647 last year. But he faces conflicting pressures.

On the one side, his membership are angry about attacks on their jobs, pay and conditions. They want a better deal for themselves, and could even throw Hayes out of his lucrative position come election time in April. On the other side, Royal Mail bosses are teamed up with the government, who want to sell off the company, and need to impose those attacks on jobs, pay and conditions to make it attractive to potential buyers. Big business wants Labour to intimidate the working class as a whole, because it is aware that massive cuts must come after the next election, to balance the books of UK PLC, which is deep in the red after the bank bailouts. For Hayes, another factor is the alliances he will have made with the powerful during his period in office. Many compliant union bureaucrats have been rewarded with titles and House of Lords seats in the past, for example.

Over the past three and a half decades, as hyper-globalisation and profit crises have brought neoliberal governments into power around the world, trade union bosses have everywhere followed this march to the right. Owing their privileges to their role as industrial cops - helping the state to beat down their membership's living standards - they fear rank and file working class solidarity across industries and borders far more than they fear the capitalist class. From this perspective, it was inevitable that the CWU executive would want to throttle a strike movement that was receiving significant popular support, just when all 120,000 CWU members were set to walk out together.

What then of the leading left parties - the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party - both of whom sometimes claim to be Marxist, in favour of working class revolution? How have they reacted to Hayes' betrayal?

The SWP were mildly critical of the strike suspension. Yuri Prasad's 7th November article argued that it was a poor tactical move, with a huge post backlog having built up, and Christmas on the way. Prasad also claimed that "There is no reason for the CWU to have signed up to such an agreement". This statement clearly abandons Marxist analysis (did the CWU 'randomly' sign the agreement then?), and is designed to cover up the real role that union bureaucracies play in controlling their membership. Prasad dared not try to explain why prominent SWP member and CWU vice president Jane Loftus voted for the agreement. Instead, the piece meekly called on rank and filers to keep "arguing hard for the return of national action" (i.e. exclusively within the confines of the current union structure). Three weeks later, Loftus resigned from the party.

The Socialist Party's position on this strike is even more reactionary. In their 11th November lead article 'Postal workers force management back', the Socialist Party declared that the deal "does allow the CWU to regain some element of trade union control in the workplace and therefore does push back the attacks of the bosses." It offered no evidence to back this up, but lionised the bureaucrats as heroic leaders:
"The job of leadership is to know when to advance and when to retreat. In the postal workers’ case it was clear that it was the bosses who were in retreat. But also what has to be taken into account is the readiness of your own troops to continue to advance as well. Many postal workers were looking to Christmas as time to be with their families and to have a well earned rest."
In other words, the deal was the absolute best that could be won, given the postal workers' lack of willingness to fight on. This turns reality upside down.

Even more tellingly, the editorial put particular emphasis on the parts of the agreement that speak of unions playing a further part in the 'modernisation' process': "This issue of trade union ‘control’ is important,” the article continues. "It lies at the heart of the battle in the postal workplace. It means the difference between the workers having some form of protection against a bullying management and none at all."

This is the CWU bureaucracy that has already overseen the imposition of a pay freeze, over fifty thousand job losses in the last seven years, the raising of the retirement age to sixty-five, and now an effective strike ban. The very bureaucracy which, according to the deputy general secretary's recent comments in the Guardian, wants to hold elections less frequently, so they are no longer in "perpetual election mode" - i.e. have to pretend to be concerned with members' interests. Yet their possible control of workplace structures is something to celebrate?

Given that both the SWP and SP leaderships pursue strategies of integrating their members into union bureaucracies (the SP have two people on the engineering section of the CWU executive, neither of whom have publicly spoken on the deal), their betrayal of postal workers' interests is not a shock. But it's not necessarily any fun being right the whole time, especially when you're right about how your team is losing.

No, Marxists use dialectics to argue and plan for a workers' movement worthy of the name, and ultimately for communism from below, because they know that no-one else could make revolution for us, no matter who they say they stand for.

"The philosophers have only interpreted the world...", Marx wrote in 1845. "The point, however, is to change it." Marxist analysis can help us do just that.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Workers' Fightback: Union tops sabotage posties and firefighters/Austria university occupations

The postal strike was sabotaged by the leadership of the Communication Workers Union last Thursday, when chief negotiators called off two scheduled days of all out action following eleventh hour talks, and left their dues payers in dark about the sell-out being prepared in their name.

The inevitable betrayal came at talks brokered by Trades Union Congress boss Brendan Barber. Like CWU general secretary Billy Hayes, Barber's privileges depend on forcing through bargains that enormously favour big business and the government, at a time when all major parties are backing massive cuts in public spending, to cover the gambling debts of the financial elite. For this reason, they fear nothing more than rank-and-file workers building up momentum and solidarity. This is especially true given a BBC poll, which showed widespread support for the posties, despite the mainsteam media propaganda going decidedly against them.

The bureaucrats have guaranteed Royal Mail there will be no more strikes until Christmas, and so are essentially offering their services as industrial police to ensure this happens. The executive includes Socialist Workers Party member Jane Loftus, but she also voted to accept this interim deal, effectively selling her comrades down the river for a seat at the top table.

So what now? An article in The Commune suggests that:
"In the next two months, things could go one of three ways. The workers may be sold out passively, rank and file pressure may generate further official action, or spreading unofficial action may develop. It is in the grasp of workers to avoid the first possibility, and maximise the chances of the other two being effective. CWU members should push inside the union for the action to be resumed, insisting on the most democratic forms of rank and file control. But they cannot rely on this strategy being successful. Therefore, they should also be prepared, should it be necessary, to take, support and spread unofficial action, from office to office, from one end of the country to the other."
The 'I Support The Postal Workers' Facebook group is here.

The problem facing unionised workers in all industries is a structural one; union leaders have different interests to rank and filers, and so must try to further those interests by making backroom deals with those who propose cuts to jobs, wages and conditions. In a further example of this, Sheffield Fire Brigades Union officials also capitulated to management just hours before a strike was due to begin over shift patterns.

The 'Support the South Yorkshire Fire & Rescue Operational Fire Fighters' group is here.

Finally, following the California university occupations a month ago, students in Austria are building a much larger movement against poor conditions, and the so-called 'Bologna process', which is aimed at the standardisation of university cuts across Europe. As well as protest marches around the country, Vienna students have now occupied the Audimax central lecture hall for two weeks. There have also been occupations at Heidelberg and Münster. According to the WSWS:
"The students’ demands include the abolition of tuition fees, the lifting of entrance restrictions at universities and colleges of further education, more rights for students to influence what happens in higher education, better equipment in all educational establishments, as well as the provision of sufficient and well-paid teaching staff."
"It is necessary to discuss and develop a political perspective that wages a struggle against the capitalist social order. It is necessary to do the very thing that the ruling class fears most: to orient the protests to the working class."
The 'In Solidarity with the occupations in Austria for Free Education!' Facebook group is here.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Workers' Fightback: Update 21

Postal workers in the UK have now taken five days of strike action against the attacks on their jobs and working conditions, spearheaded by Royal Mail and backed by the government. RM are responding by rolling out Britain's largest strikebreaking operation since the pivotal miners' strike of 1984-85. However, Communication Workers Union bureaucrats - who have been doing their best to dampen down rank and file anger since the early summer - have claimed this is "not a sticking point".

Last Wednesday, members of the Nottinghamshire Industrial Workers of the World branch leafleted outside the Station Road Jobcentre Plus branch, urging centre users not to cross picket lines and undermine the strike. Actions like this are vitally important, because the new workers' movement is starting from a historical low in terms of class consciousness and knowledge of industrial tactics, and under-25s make up nearly four in ten on the UK unemployment roll.

Two days of all-out strikes are scheduled for Friday and next Monday. The 'I Support the Postal Workers!' Facebook group is here.

In another historical milestone struggle, Ford workers in the US have emphatically rejected the latest sacrifices proposed by United Auto Workers president Ron Gettelfinger, with nearly three quarters voting no on the deal. It is the first time a national deal has been rejected stateside since 1976, and the first time at Ford since 1972. Since then, the UAW has helped to wipe out 750,000 US auto industry jobs, leaving Detroit and other manufacturing centres utterly devastated.

Union executives around the world and in every industry have argued that economic globalisation means that cuts are necessary sacrifices, and a whole generation of workers have grown up in that environment, giving more to their bosses, and getting less back, while the bureaucrats have enriched themselves. Ford workers have seen 45% of their colleagues made redundant since 2006, and have overwhelmingly decided that enough is enough, drawing a red line in the sand. They must link up with their counterparts at Chrysler and General Motors (the other two members of the 'Big Three', who had similar deals foisted upon them by Gettelfinger and President Obama at the start of the year), and workers internationally. The nationalist, pro-capitalist perspective of the business unions has been exposed as a dead end, but now the case has to be made for workers' control.

Finally for this week, more than four thousand undocumented workers are taking strike action and holding occupations in Paris. Their demand is for the same legal rights as indigenous French labour. Under the slogan 'Colonised yesterday – exploited today – tomorrow regularised', the strike wave is far larger than a similar uprising in spring last year, which involved six hundred workers and won two thousand regularisations. According to an article in The Commune:
"This exemplary movement perfectly illustrates the contradictions of capitalism. In order to maintain profits, this system has for years carried out a policy of outsourcing and casualising the labour force. This logic is pushed to its extreme with undocumented migrant workers. Furthermore they suffer growing state and police repression with the development of Fortress Europe, a racist Europe, which lauds the free circulation of capital yet allows thousands of people to die every year in the Mediterranean."

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Liverpool People

Stephen Shakeshaft
National Conservation Centre, Whitechapel (18th September 2009 - 24th January 2010)

"We call them photographs but they are also history; telling of men, women and children and their place in passing events. Once the buton on the camera has been pushed these people are given a kind of immortality, for the camera is a third eye, adding permanence to the sight it sees."

This exhibition of more than sixty Liverpool photographs by retired Liverpool Echo and Daily Post picture editor Stephen Shakeshaft showcases his skilled and sensitive - if somewhat uncritical - approach to his craft. But more than this, it provides a pictorial glimpse into the city's past, a 'foreign country' dominated by heavy industry along the docks and strong working class community spirit everywhere else. By showing us what once was, it necessarily points out what is no longer.

The Echo took Shakeshaft on at the tender age of sixteen, in 1962. The Beatles were just beginning their assault on the charts, having built a solid local following from their gigs at the Cavern and elsewhere. From this time, with its Scottie Road doorstep scrubbers and the nearby Limekiln Lane wash house, we see history progress for better and worse, through to the Toxteth uprising and its aftermath. Liverpool fans hang their heads in anguish at the 1977 European Cup final defeat, and supporters of all teams and none gather at Anfield to commiserate over a true disaster - which took place at the Hillsborough Stadium in 1989.

In short, almost all Liverpool life is here, and the overall effect is a nostalgic glow from what Shakeshaft calls the 'magic' of the place, which ultimately boils down to the dogged determination and group solidarity of working class people. Of course, these factors are not only to be found in this one city by any stretch of the imagination. However, the history of especially high unemployment levels and the particular mixture of ethnicities gives the 'magic' a certain flavour.

Shakeshaft demonstrates great empathy with his subjects, which is vital for any serious artist. Using this, he developed a knack of knowing when the chance of an evocative photo would present itself. Nowhere is this more evident than in his portrait of an elderly Edge Hill woman, who with no electricity available keeps a candlelit vigil over her cloth-covered kitchen table. The same applies to the very different image of a young boy playing amongst high tide waves on New Brighton promenade.

Though the region has changed dramatically, Shakeshaft's video commentary gives no great insight into his perspective on these changes. Certainly, working for a major advertising-dependent newspaper for so long, it would have been very difficult to be particularly critical and remain in his relatively comfortable job. For Shakeshaft, a fine photo would seem to be one that gently surprises with a quirkily unusual scene, or a marked contrast of any kind. Still, that's not a bad starting point, and any aspiring photographers in this digital age of ever more extreme contrasts would do well to pay this exhibition a visit.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Workers' Fightback: Update 20

Postal workers have begun their national strike against job cuts, worsening conditions and potential privatisation, with two days of stoppages. In doing so, they have engaged in a political struggle to save a service everyone in the UK relies on, and they are lined up against Royal Mail bosses, the Labour government, and the leaders of their own Communication Workers Union.

Royal Mail has done much to provoke the strike, with management bullying becoming endemic all over the country over the last six months. In response, local workforces have held unofficial wildcat walkouts, requested held many local ballots and strikes, and finally dragged their union tops into a national strike they have desperately tried to avoid.

Throughout this time, general secretary Billy Hayes (who claimed a £83,530 salary and £14,190 in pension contributions when selling out the 2007 strike) and his deputy Dave Ward have offered management their services as peacemakers, and a moratorium on strikes. In the last minute talks before Thursday's strike, Ward proposed “a three-year agreement aimed at providing long-term stability for the business, employees and our customers” on the sole condition that attacks on postal workers are "introduced by agreement".

A leaked internal 'Strategic Overview' showed that Royal Mail want to make the strike an "enabler" of these attacks, which include tens of thousands of sackings and the impossible speed-ups which these would make necessary. The document claims that even if the CWU bureaucracy doesn't force through a deal, "there is “shareholder, customer and internal support for implementation of change without agreement" (emphasis added). The only 'shareholder' in Royal Mail is the state.

From the government's perspective, the smashing of this strike would serve to intimidate not only postal workers, but also the workers across the public sector who will face huge cuts after the next general election. For this reason and so many others, it is vital that posties receive maximum solidarity from the working class.

A three day strike is scheduled to begin on Thursday. The 'I Support the Postal Workers!' Facebook group is here.

Meanwhile, striking refuse workers show no sign of giving up their struggles against wage cuts, despite the severe hardship they are suffering. On Wednesday, 92% of strikers at a mass meeting rejected Leeds council's "final offer" of substantial attacks on pay, sick pay and conditions. This was despite a Yorkshire Evening Post article alleging that GMB and UNISON negotiators had all-but caved-in to the council's demands. The 'Leeds supports its Refuse Collectors' Facebook group is here.

Similarly, Edinburgh street cleaners are angry with council leaders' suggestions they are "set to give up their protest", according to Indymedia. The 'Edinburgh Muckraker' reports that nothing has changed since their mass meeting on 9th October, when hundreds of council manual workers agreed to continue their work-to-rule and overtime ban. “Nothing’s changed,” a street cleaner argued, “This is council PR". The Edinburgh Evening Post had reported the council's claims as fact on the 19th.

Meanwhile, there was been more unrest in Greece, which last year saw a huge uprising, trigged when a cop fatally shot fifteen-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos. Since the election of a new 'Socialist' government at the start of the month, there has been massive police repression in the Exarcheia district of Athens - traditionally an anarchist stomping ground. Meanwhile, the death of twenty-year-old Pakistani immigrant Mohamed Kamran Atif at police hands sparked clashes with the state forces, and a short-lived occupation of the town hall, which received the support of the local Municipal Workers Association before it was brought to an end. According to LibCom, the Workers Association demanded:
"...that the forces of repression leave from within the boundaries of the historic City of Nikea. The occupation of the City Hall by the protesters is a political act, and the attempt to criminalise it is unacceptable and undemocratic."

Friday, October 23, 2009

Question Time: Did the Straw Man Really Slay the Griffin?

Photograph by Mike Fleming (

Viewers of the BBC's Question Time were confronted by many truly repellent outbursts from the platform on 22nd October. The screening - which had generated massive controversy due to the debut appearance of British National Party chairman Nick Griffin - often broke out into shouting and boos as the audience expressed their disgust with Griffin's barely disguised racism and homophobia.

But a significant early comment by another panellist went almost unnoticed amidst all the fury: Jack Straw claimed that Labour and the other 'mainstream parties' have a "moral compass". In this article I will examine that claim, look at the ideological role of Question Time, and criticise the tactics of Unite Against Fascism and the Socialist Workers Party.

Since it began in 1979, Question Time has been a centrepiece of the BBC's political courage. During that time, it has played a significant role in framing the national policy debate, in determining which views are (and which are not) acceptable as 'mainstream'. When the programme began, in the early days of Margaret Thatcher's first Conservative government, there were four panellists - one each from Conservatives, Labour and the Liberals (as the third party were known at the time). The fourth panellist would be a prominent 'talking head', often from the fields of academia, the media or religion. In 1999, the panel was expanded to five guests, and the show experimented with 'outsider' figures, such as comedians, but this was quickly ditched.

The 'mainstream' of British politics has travelled far to the right since Question Time first hit the screens, as a result of accelerating globalisation and the ever-widening chasm between the richest and everyone else. Over that period, Question Time's panels have marched in lockstep. For that reason alone, Griffin's appearance during a time of economic collapse marks a deeply worrying lowpoint. Though the fourth and fifth guests can't be from one of the three main parties, their views are normally broadly in line with the 'mainstream' consensus. On the rare occasions when a panellist's views are outside the boundaries of ruling class respectability - either to the left or to the right - they can expect to be taken to task by the presenter. This serves to solidify the current boundaries in the public consciousness.

This is what happened yesterday. Nick Griffin - the representative of a racist political party which has recently had electoral success at the expense of the hated 'mainstream' - was hauled over the coals by David Dimbleby, who had the disrespectful air of a public school teacher reprimanding a wayward pupil. At one point, Dimbleby even asked Griffin "why are you smiling?" - a question that would never be asked of a politician from one of the three established parties.

Nowhere was this beating of the bounds more noticeable than in the section dealing with the BNP's attempt to claim Winston Churchill - that cuddly totem of British imperialism - as one of their own. While it's hard to imagine quotes such as "I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes" going down badly at fascist meetings, Churchill has become a cherished icon of the British ruling class, thanks mainly to the fact that he was in charge for most of World War Two, he made some speeches, and Britain didn't lose. In the mythology, this virulently anti-working class aristocratic eugenicist - and not the workers who fought Franco for example - is portrayed as having 'defended freedom' from Hitler's Nazis. The BNP's attempted appropriation of all this imagery is therefore their ultimate challenge to the 'mainstream'.

While leading MPs had called on the BBC not to allow Griffin a platform, Labour's 'Justice Secretary' Jack Straw, Baroness Warsi of the Conservatives and Chris Huhne of the Lib Dems took the opportunity to appear relatively reasonable and progressive. This at a time when all three are backing calls for massive attacks on working class living standards as a remedy for the unfolding historic crisis of the capitalist system. However, it was often hard to tell Griffin's 'concerned citizen' act from Warsi - the Yorkshire-born daughter of Pakistani parents - who claimed that a Conservative government would set a cap on the numbers coming in. Huhne also complained that Labour had "lost control" of the borders.

But the prize for hypocrisy must surely go to Straw, whose "moral compass" always seems to guide him towards his own self interest as a spokesman for the UK capitalist elite. This is a man who, as Foreign Secretary, deceived the country in the build-up to the Iraq invasion - aimed at winning control over the country's oilfields - which has cost hundreds of thousands of lives. As Home Secretary, he pushed through draconian attacks on civil liberties, and was in charge of the fortress conditions that saw fifty-eight Chinese migrants die as they were smuggled into the UK. And in 2006 he launched his own anti-Islam provocation, when he denounced women who choose to wear the niqab veil.

It is a healthy sign that so many people opposed Griffin having such a public platform for his views, and the protesters who invaded Television Centre acted bravely. But in the run-up to the appearance, the Socialist Workers Party-led Unite Against Fascism showed its reformist colours by appealing to the powers that be. The Socialist Worker even claimed that Griffin's invite "...flies in the face of [the BBC's] responsibilities as a public service broadcaster."

This painting of the BBC in 'neutral' tones misleads and disarms the working class. Day after day, it propagandises in favour of the elite, whether dealing with cuts and repression at home, or the state's imperialist adventures abroad. It is less than a year since the Corporation - in the name of "neutrality" - refused to screen an emergency appeal for the Gazan victims of Israeli aggression. Question Time plays a key role in this whole process. What's more, a party with more than fifty elected representatives could legitimately (in the purely legal sense of that term) demand significant airtime from a "public service broadcaster" following the norms of capitalist 'democracy'.

It is certainly a terrible shame that BBC viewers were faced with Nick Griffin last night, but anyone calling for 'mainstream' politicians or establishment figures to step in and prevent certain political views being expressed should not be surprised when working class perspectives are also excluded. It is precisely that working class which must become conscious of itself as the capitalist crisis deepens, and make its own independent decisions about who gets airtime.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

'New' Tactics Vs Rubbish Bosses

Also published in Issue 8 of The Commune.

With the economic collapse and inevitable banker bailouts hitting national and local government budgets, politicians from all parties are determined to make working class people pay for the crisis of their system. While national Labour, Conservatives and Lib Dems are courting big business support by swaggering into TV studios, boasting of how tough they will be next year, local officials are wasting no time in going on the attack.

Under these conditions, the recent and ongoing struggles against refuse worker wage cuts are serving as a taster for the far bigger fights that will soon be upon us. So yes, bin men and street cleaners in Liverpool, Leeds and Edinburgh have withdrawn their labour in union-led campaigns. But perhaps more significantly, they have had active support from various groups, which has gone far beyond the passive routine of letter-writing and appeals to politicians. Desperate times clearly call for more militant measures, and though these isolated events have not tipped the balance in the strikers' favour, they point towards new workerist strategies in the months and years ahead.

The Liverpool dispute began on 28th August, and lasted for three weeks, before the GMB union reached agreement with Enterprise Liverpool on a slightly improved pay offer. The deal leaves the company needing to find a mere £270,000, instead of the alarmist £15 million they were talking about before the work to rules, overtime ban, and mini-strikes began. The local GMB leadership touted the mini-strikes as being a way of preventing strike-breaking, but it soon became clear that Assist Streetcare (based in the Aintree area of the city) were indeed providing scab labour.

In response, a number of activists from outside the mainstream 'labour movement' organised a picket and virtual blockade of Assist Streetcare, on the morning of 15th September. The gathering outside the Aintree depot was small enough to be safely ignored, but the numbers phoning, faxing and emailing their displeasure caused a shutdown of the company's phone and email systems.

This virtual strategy seems to be relatively new in terms of UK class struggle. Last year it was used in support of Industrial Workers of the World member Chris Lockwood, who had been fired from his bar job at the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield for organising. Previously to this, it had been quite a long-standing tactic of animal rights campaigners targeting businesses and research facilities deemed to be abusers.

The Edinburgh cleaning workers have also been undermined by scab labour, but activists from the IWW and Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty amongst others have found their own method for dealing with it. At the time of writing, the 'scab stoppers' have blockaded scab lorries three times, detaining them for hours and exchanging views with the strike-breakers, before police cleared the way for the onward march of capital. However, no arrests have yet been made.

The same can not be said in Leeds, where the all-out strike against £6,000 pay cuts began on 7th September, and emotions seem to be running especially high. Supporters of the strike took bin bags of their rubbish to the doorstep of the man they called "the source of the problem", council leader Richard Brett. Six people were arrested and bailed to return in November.

Of course, none of these tactics are entirely original; variations of each have been used by previous generations of class fighters. What makes their modified reappearance so significant is that such militancy must surely increase as the historic crisis confronting working people continues to deepen, and the union tops reveal themselves to be class collaborators. Furthermore, the widespread availability of internet technology provides the opportunity for such struggles to link up with each other, forging class solidarity around the globe, and allowing workers of all nations to truly unite.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Workers' Fightback: Update 19

If your post hasn’t been arriving as regularly recently, it’s because UK postal workers are desperately trying to save their pensions, their jobs, and the future of the service you rely on. In doing so, they are confronting Royal Mail, the government, and the leaders of ‘their own’ Communication Workers’ Union.

Posties are currently deciding whether to hold a national strike, having forced the union bureaucracy’s hand with a series of local stoppages – both official and unofficial. If – as expected – they decide to take the action, it will be against attacks on working conditions agreed by CWU general secretary Billy Hayes and his team at the end of 2007. The deal was aimed at making Royal Mail attractive to buyers, and though Business Secretary Peter Mandelson can’t find one in the current market, he’s determined that the company should press on with plans to cut the payroll by 40%.

Although the corporate media has started stoking fears that the Christmas post could be delayed, for example, it has been silent on the chaos that would follow if so many posties were forced out of work. Neither is it examining the potential impact on the remaining 60%. As industrial commentator Gregor Gall suggested in an article on The Commune website:
"Ironically, the only serious hope for a stable and lasting resolution to the current dispute is the prospect of a national all-out postal strike. This would use the autumn return to official parliamentary politics to put pressure on the government to tell Royal Mail management to negotiate an acceptable outcome. It looks like it’s going to be a case of going to war to bring about peace."
The 'I Support the Postal Workers!' Facebook group is here.

In a historic development, plantation workers in Sri Lanka have openly declared that they oppose ‘their own’ unions, who have clearly stabbed members in the back one too many times. In their statement, the newly formed Balmoral Estate Action Committee announced that:
"We, the workers of the Balmoral Estate in Agarapathana, have formed our own Action Committee to fight for our rights and call on workers throughout the plantations and other sections of industry to do the same.

"We have taken this step because we have no faith in any of the trade unions that have sold us out time and time again. All the plantation unions are working with the employers and the government to force us to accept another two years of poverty-level wages."
"Workers cannot put any trust in the unions, which operate as industrial policemen for the government and employers. We say workers everywhere must rely on their own independent strength. That is why we are calling for workers in other estates as well as in factories, schools, hospitals and other workplaces to form their own action committees independent of the unions. We are all finding it impossible to make ends meet."
As the economic crisis facing working class people intensifies, it is becoming increasingly apparent that trade union bureaucrats act as "industrial policemen for the government and employers". In the UK and around the world, the same lessons must be learned, and acted upon.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Jungle

"Jurgis could see all the truth now - could see himself through the whole long course of events, the victim of ravenous vultures that had torn into his vitals and devoured him; of fiends that had racked and tortured him, mocking him, meantime, jeering in his face."

This brilliant novel by socialist author and journalist Upton Sinclair (he also wrote Oil!, which got turned into the far inferior film There Will Be Blood), gives a thoughtful, compassionate and compelling insight into the brutal life of 'unskilled' labourers in the United States a century ago. In doing so, it necessarily invites the question: how have things changed?

The Jungle follows the misadventures of Lithuanian migrant worker Jurgis, as he tries to make a new life with his family in early 1900s Chicago. Arriving a firm believer in individualism and the power of hard work in a 'free country', his objective circumstances deal him harsh lesson after harsh lesson, and he quickly becomes 'disillusioned', in the true sense of the word.

Jurgis' travails give him a look at many different aspects of 'the system', from the semi-aristocratic life of the Illinois governor's family, to the gangsterism behind popular politics, and of course the brutality of the meatpacking industry. A colleague tells him they use every part of the pig 'except the squeal', but he doesn't grasp what this mean at first. Soon, however, he begins to understand that his life in the 'killing beds' is symptomatic of the wider society around him; a society that is organised against his interests, that will use him up and throw him away. Having achieved class consciousness, he gets involved in Eugene Debs-style socialism.

In the aftermath of the novel's publication, the U.S. government stepped in to regulate the meat industry, with President Theodore Roosevelt realising that laissez-faire in food standards threatened the profitability of American capitalism as a whole.

Following the Russian Revolution and the end of World War One, Sinclair made two unsuccessful Congressional bids as a Socialist. With the decline of socialism as a political force in the U.S., and the onset of the Great Depression, he became a left reformist Democrat in the New Deal era. Despite the limitations of his later political activism - which were the necessary outcome of being a relatively wealthy man amidst a post-Stalin labour movement - his devastatingly perceptive novels still have great value today.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Workers' Fightback: Update 18

As the refuse strikes continued in Liverpool, Leeds and Edinburgh over the last fortnight (with the Liverpool action ending on the 18th), supporters in each city took direct action in solidarity with workers in struggle against worsening pay and conditions. As they did so, they showed a way forward for a new, militant working class movement in the UK, which will not limit itself to ritualistic strikes as it confronts the economic crisis.

Liverpool activists organised a physical and virtual picket of Assist Streetcare, who have supplied scab labour on that city, as well as Edinburgh, where the council has faced an all-out strike. On Tuesday, 15th September, activists picketed the Assist Streetcare depot in Aintree, Liverpool, whilst many others sent emails, faxes and phonecalls to the company, expressing their anger at the use of scabs to break the Liverpool strike action. The main telephone number was soon shut down, and the email address started bouncing messages back to their sender.

The very next day, Leeds City Council Richard Brett had his doorstep “trashed” by activists, who dumped several bags of rubbish at his home, 991 Scott Hall Road. Police arrested and bailed six people. According to one participant:

“Refuse collectors are being told to lose £3 an hour off an already low wage. £3 an hour won’t seem much to Councillor Brett who took £48,000 just in expenses last year, but it is to those struggling to live already during these times of crisis. We refuse to accept this, it’s rubbish!”

On the Friday, scab lorries were blockaded up in Scotland, as Industrial Workers of the World members and others detained strike-breakers at the top of Blair Street, Edinburgh for half an hour, before police arrived and broke up the cordon. According to an IWW member:

We explained to the workers who were scabbing that what they were doing was wrong and that in these hard times people have to stick together and not stab each other in the back....fighting for the crumbs from the rich man's table…”

The Vestas blockade – aimed at preventing the company from shifting the last wind turbine blades from its Isle of Wight factory – was brought to an end by typically uncompromising police repression last Tuesday. Cops issued warnings to thirteen people “suspected of having committed, committing, or about to commit, criminal offences of aggravated trespass”, at 6.30am. Two hours later, the site had been cleared, and security staff were erecting their own blockades – to keep protesters out.

Four activists were arrested in Southampton docks, having locked onto cranes in an attempt to pressurise Vestas into reinstating the workers they had sacked. After seventeen hours in police custody, they were charged with aggravated trespass.

The 'Save Vestas, Save Jobs, Save The Planet' Facebook group and 'Save Vestas' blog both continue to call for the government to step in and protect green jobs.

With many students returning to campuses after their summer break, and many educational facilities facing cuts, a rebellious reaction was inevitable. The economy in the state of California is experiencing a particularly traumatic time during this crisis, and Governor Schwarzenegger has responded by making enormous cuts to jobs and services.

The University of California has a budget gap of $750 million, and aims to balance the books by ordering unpaid ‘furloughs’ (compulsory time off) for non-union staff, course cuts and tuition fee increases of almost one third. In protest, staff and students at ten UC campuses staged walkouts last Thursday. However, students at the Santa Cruz campus took things a stage further.

Calling themselves ‘Occupy California’, and using the pretext of a ‘dance party’ organised on Twitter, the group have barricaded themselves into parts of the Kimmel Center, proclaiming:

“We must face the fact that the time for pointless negotiations is over. Appeals to the UC administration and Sacramento are futile; instead, we appeal to each other, to the people with whom we are struggling, and not to those whom we struggle against. A single day of action at the university is not enough because we cannot afford to return to business as usual. We seek to form a unified movement with the people of California. Time and again, factional demands are turned against us by our leaders and used to divide social workers against teachers, nurses against students, librarians against park rangers, in a competition for resources they tell us are increasingly scarce. This crisis is general, and the revolt must be generalized. Escalation is absolutely necessary. We have no other option.”

The group's website - 'We Want Everything' - can be found here.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Dorian Gray (15)

Directed by Oliver Parker
Based on a novel by Oscar Wilde
On general release from 11th September 2009

Oliver Parker's version of Oscar Wilde's The Picture Of Dorian Gray is an exceptionally rare thing: a big screen adaptation that does justice to a classic novel. Though of course some changes have been made, they do not detract from the narrative or the essential feel of the story. Wilde enthusiasts can be confident that they won't be disappointed, so long as they keep an open mind, while curious newcomers are in for a treat.

As many people know, Dorian Gray (Ben Barnes) is a naive boyish aristocrat who inherits his grandfather's estate. Artist Basil Hallward (Ben Chaplin) is impressed by Gray's youthful beauty, and tries to capture it in a portrait, which he insists will never grow old. However, sly man-about-town Henry Wotton (Colin Firth) takes the youngster under his wing, and encourages him to indulge in pleasures of the flesh. From that moment, Dorian's every act of deception has harmful effects on those around him, and he is left utterly alone, even when surrounded by people. The picture becomes a mirror for his decaying 'soul', even as its subject does not outwardly age one single day.

While Barnes is scarily convincing in his transformation from childlike innocence to devilish deceiver, it is Firth who steals the show, proving he has far greater acting range than he's been allowed to demonstrate since his TV role as Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. The use of special effects is also impressive; for once it isn't about showing off, rather they are used to heighten the appreciation of the lead character's thoughts and emotions. In Parker's hands, this is a true psychological horror film, about a real strain of psychological horror, with implications for views of society.

When Oscar Wilde wrote The Picture Of Dorian Gray in 1890, it was a key moment in the artistic movement known as aestheticism. Aesthetes were wealthy, often aristocratic artists who rejected industrialism - especially its pre-occupation with usefulness and the Victorian morality that came with it. But Wilde's work was a scarred man's wistful search for a happy medium, which recognised that such individualistic pursuit of empty pleasures came at a high cost. Wotton's quip that "The only way to resist temptation is to yield to it" certainly has a ring of truth in it, but it is a hollow one. In modern times, it finds its echo in the obsessive chronicles of 'celebrity lifestyles' that fill countless shelves and waste bins.

Wilde's classic tale raises important questions about how we pursue happiness in societies based on competition, and this film adaptation fully brings that significance to life. In response to critics who wanted art to serve their own agendas, the author famously claimed that 'All art is quite useless.' But art like his parable and this film are as useful to the cause of humanity as they are aesthetically pleasing.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Workers' Fightback: Update 17

As local councils around the country try to make employees pay for their budget crises, refuse workers are in the frontline in the battle against cuts. Over the past fortnight, they have been taking industrial action in three cities, in struggles which union tops have not linked-up. However, the cases are similar enough to indicate that council staff nationwide are confronting essentially the same pressures on their pay and conditions, pressures which point towards unified nationwide resistance.

Rubbish has been piling up in Leeds this week, since refuse workers began an indefinite strike over pay cuts which unions claim will cost their members thousands of pounds per year. Leeds is following in the footsteps of Edinburgh, where their counterparts have also been struggling against decreased wage packets. Strike-breaking scab labour has come from Liverpool, with at least thirty scabs being put up at the £102 per night Hilton Hotel at Edinburgh airport. These scabs are employed by the Assist Streetcare subcontractors, and are being recruited through the Blue Arrow agency.

Indeed, it’s been a busy time for Assist Streetcare, because trucks and scabs are also leaving their depot in the Aintree area of Liverpool, to break the strike in that city. Six hundred refuse collectors, street cleaners, recycling and highways staff are currently in a second period of indefinite strike action, demanding that their employers consolidate bonus payments into their regular wages.

As always, active solidarity is vital, and campaigners have called a physical and virtual picket of Assist Streetcare for this Tuesday, from 9 am.

The Vestas factory on the Isle of Wight has once again been the scene of resistance this week. A blockade has been set up in an attempt to prevent the company moving the wind turbine blades left behind when the factory occupation ended. At dawn on Thursday, a tripod was erected, and a worker from the occupation perched on top, watching the sunrise over the River Medina. The 'Save Vestas, Save Jobs, Save The Planet' Facebook group and 'Save Vestas' blog both continue to call for the government to step in and protect green jobs.

Finally, subway workers in Buenos Aires, Argentina have found an ingenious way to fight back. Reviving the time-honoured practice of industrial sabotage, employees seeking union recognition from the government freed turnstiles for two hours. Whereas strike action often risks alienating the public, passengers getting free travel may be more inclined to support the workers’ demands.

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