Sunday, January 11, 2009

Two Hundred March Against Wirral Cuts

As hundreds of thousands in London, Edinburgh and around the world demonstrated against Israel's genocidal attacks on Gaza, a much smaller protest took place in Wallasey, Merseyside. While it would be inappropriate to draw many parallels between the two, it can be said the struggle for life and freedom in Palestine and for decent public services in this country have one thing in common: they represent squares in the global chess match between the profit system and the rest of humanity.

Fate prevented there being a high turnout: apart from the fact of the Palestine demo, it was a bitterly cold Saturday morning, and publicity had been in very short supply. Despite all this, about two hundred people braved the conditions, and marched the two miles from Wallasey Town Hall to the threatened Wirral Museum in Birkenhead.

The event was a slightly odd one, and proved the old saying that 'politics makes for strange bedfellows'. Anarchists marched behind Conservatives, who clapped a Socialist Workers Party speaker (prospective Wallasey and Moreton Tory MP Leah Fraser even briefly held a Unite placard, before presumably thinking better of it). Workers who jobs are faced with the axe were present, along with trade unionists and people from smaller socialist parties. Quite a few children also marched.

At the Birkenhead rally, several speeches were made, and everyone condemned Wirral Council's plan to close twelve libraries - Birkenhead Central Library and many local branches - plus two leisure centres (including Guinea Gap Baths, right next to the Town Hall), Pacific Road Theatre and the Wirral Museum at Birkenhead Town Hall. Labour Council leader Steve Foulkes has pledged "better but fewer" services, and has the support of Lib Dems within his coalition.

During the last week, more than two thousand people have attended the Council's sham 'consultation' meetings, and have overwhelmingly shown their hostility to the cuts. The 'Save Wirral's Services' Facebook group has over three thousand members. Many letters have been written to local papers. In the end however, the decision rests with the Wirral Cabinet, when they meet on Thursday, 15th January.

Nationally, the Conservative Party openly wants to "shrink" the public sector, yet for now the local Tories continue to speak left of Wirral Labour and Lib Dems over the proposed cuts. For their part, the trade union leaders did not propose any industrial action yesterday.

Politics only makes for strange bedfellows so long as each person thinks it's in their interests to snuggle up. After the official political process runs its course, we'll see who's in a committed relationship with who.

More photos here, visit here for videos.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Liverpool 2009: Capital of Crisis?

As Liverpool hands the Capital of Culture baton over to Vilnius and Linz, the city’s economy is in for an extremely tough year. Top council leaders claim Liverpool is in particularly good shape to ride out the global economic collapse, but statistics and analysis show they could not be further from the truth.

The Crisis Of Capital

Before we look at local conditions, it is important to examine the worldwide trauma which is starting to affect Liverpool. People in the mainstream media have a way of making economics seem more complicated than it actually is, so here is the problem, as simply as I can put it.

A manufacturing business makes a profit when it is able to sell things made by its employees. This profit is effectively taken from those employees, because their wages are far less than the value they added to the thing (how much less depends on local conditions). However, if the thing cannot be sold, there will be no profit, and so the business stops producing things, throwing its employees out of work.

During the 1970s, countries such as China, India and Bangladesh were brought into manufacturing. Factories started closing ‘developed world’, including the United States and Britain, because businesses wanted to make larger profits in the ‘developing’ countries, where they would be able to pay workers much lower wages. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the manufacturing workforce was boosted by the collapse of Communist Party dictatorships in eastern Europe.

As a result of this, the basis of the economy in ‘developed’ nations began to change, and we entered what is sometimes called a ‘post-industrial’ society. As manufacturing jobs all-but vanished, they were often replaced by work to do with consumerism - the distribution and selling of things, rather than the making of things.

These jobs tended to be lower paid, but the workers in such employment still needed to be able to buy things, or business would not be able to make a profit. As the value of wages stayed level or fell in relation to what they could buy, the credit industry grew massively. If you couldn’t afford to buy that widescreen plasma television right that minute, there were many companies competing with each other to lend you the money.

Because of this competition, credit companies had to always be seeking new markets, investing in riskier and riskier loans. The ‘credit crunch’ started in July 2007, when it became clear that people with ‘sub-prime’ mortgages in the US - i.e. people who could not afford a mortgage, but had been sold one anyway - were no longer making their payments.

This meant people began losing their homes, and mortgage companies had to write off their ‘toxic assets’ - money they were never going to get back. But they in turn had been loaned money by banks, so now they couldn’t get paid back either.

It was soon obvious that much of the value businesses thought they owned was actually imaginary; they might as well have bought castles in the sky. The credit crisis then spread to the ‘real economy’ - the making of things. If banks were collapsing, they couldn’t lend money to manufacturers. If manufacturers couldn’t make things, they had to shut down production. Crucially for most workers in ‘post-industrial’ Britain, this means there is less to sell, and people unable to get loans like they used to are unable to buy. That’s one vicious circle.

As Paul Krugman, the winner of last year’s Nobel Prize for Economics has written:

“The fact is that recent economic numbers have been terrifying, not just in the United States but around the world. Manufacturing, in particular, is plunging everywhere. Banks aren't lending; businesses and consumers aren't spending. Let's not mince words: This looks an awful lot like the beginning of a second Great Depression.” (The New York Times, 5th January 2009)

Liverpool's economy

For a long time, Liverpool’s economy was based on its handy location for transporting things across seas, things that had often been made in other Northern places - such as Manchester - but also in the industrial area near the docks. In fact, Liverpool grew to something like its current size due to the transatlantic slave trade.

Because of this, Liverpool has always been hit particularly badly by recessions. If things were not being bought, they would not be made. If things were not being made, they would not be transported. If things were not being transported, Liverpool workers would be sacked. This would also have an affect on smaller businesses in the area, which mainly catered for those industrial workers.

According to research by Stuart Wilks-Heeg from the University of Liverpool, local employment has risen by 45,000 since 1997, when the city’s economy began its recovery from the loss of its old base, which saw 30% of jobs wiped out. However, in these ‘post-industrial’ times, this growth was largely based on three areas: tourism (especially trading on The Beatles’ name and Capital of Culture), consumerism, and state employment. All these areas are now under threat from the global crisis.

Well they would say that…

Despite all the gloomy predictions from economists, politicians remain upbeat, in public at least. On 5th December last year, Council leader Warren Bradley told the Daily Post that:

“In terms of legacy, the new Arena and Convention Centre could not have had a better first year, thanks to the profile from hosting major Capital of Culture events such as the opening weekend, MTV Awards, and Sports Personality of the Year.”

Bradley also expressed apparent delight at how the massive, privatised shopping complex of Liverpool One had opened:

“Similarly, Liverpool One has had a cracking six months and is attracting people from all over the region to the city - shoppers who had previously used Manchester or Chester.”

He then pulled his head out of the sand and stuck it in the clouds, arguing that:

“The downturn in the economy will play to our advantage, as people in this country may choose to go on more city breaks rather than holidaying abroad, particularly given the exchange rate.”

This is deluded thinking. Even if more people from this country were to go on city breaks rather than travel abroad - despite the fact that it is often cheaper to fly across the continent than drive or ride a train across the country - the same would apply to people from overseas, who make up a large proportion of tourists in Liverpool. Besides, in this age of international capital, it doesn’t particularly matter whether a shop’s customers make their purchases in London or Liverpool, chains are closing anyway. Already, the city centre Woolworths has closed, and Zavvi - which lies on the edge of the Liverpool One development - has gone into administration.

Bradley would much rather mislead people about the direction of the local economy than admit the truth: it's about to sink like a stone.

The Struggle Ahead

All indicators point to a huge rise in unemployment, as retail outlets close, and this will have a knock-on effect on other sectors. Tourism will also plummet, from its artificial Capital of Culture high to something much, much lower. That government spending is also in danger, as the state prepares for cuts in the years ahead. Local council tax receipts will fall, leading to some combination of higher taxes and cuts to council services.

The people employed in retail and service are mostly young, and non-unionised. They are very likely to be burdened with high levels of debt - both student loans and credit card bills. The people in state employment are far more likely to be unionised, although that will count for little, as union bureaucrats collaborate with the government and try to manage their members’ anger.

In 2007, Liverpool had the highest proportion of people on unemployment-related benefits out of twenty UK cities and towns, plus the highest proportion of working age people with no formal qualifications.

Mix all these factors together and you get a potentially explosive combination.

In a world that has never been more closely connected, what happens in Liverpool will depend to a large extent on what happens elsewhere, perhaps most crucially the countries where manufacturing is a major source of employment. But we can say this for certain: 2009 will be a year of great struggle.

Sunday, January 04, 2009


Red Dot Exhibitions
Contemporary Urban Centre, Greenland Street (12th December 2008 - 9th January 2009)

Red Dot have chosen migration as the theme for their latest group show. This proved to be a wise choice, for it produces an exhibition which gives a sense of the complex and almost contradictory nature of the subject. The timelessness and the transitory nature of the phenomenon are explored, alongside its universality, and yet the hatred and division often associated with it also gets a look in.

Artwork by migrants from many different areas (Romania, Afghanistan, Tibet) is displayed, plus creations from Red Dot regulars who - though born in this country - are of course descended from migrants somewhere down the line.

But the birds soar far above all this human confusion, making annual journeys around the world to find the most favourable conditions, and attracting no resentment from people who are used to passport control. Barbara Jones depicts this in her ‘Paper‘, with her hundreds of origami birds and boats.

Carl Fletcher and Ken Bullock’s ‘The Migration of Music’ celebrates music’s existence as a global language that crosses many barriers, with their collage of album covers in the shape of a boat crossing water.

Nicole Bartos’ ‘Linking Space to Channel Love and Warm Hearts’ is a reminded what migrants leave behind when forced to find a new home by poor conditions in their country of origin. Her collage of airmail letters - one mysteriously singed - exactly lives up to her description, and is a touching display of emotions we all share, but are often kept secret.

‘My Mother’s Mother’s Mother’ by Alice Lenkiewicz stretches back through history to her Polish great-grandmother, in a series of three mirrors decorated with floral designs and family photographs. Again here, the viewer experiences something that unites us all. The clothes and locations are different of course, but almost everyone has family photographs, and fond memories of relatives.

On the other side of things, a John O’Neill piece a shows the challenges awaiting more recent Polish arrivals to Britain. As three men stride out the back of a van, three more sit grim-faced on a wall that bears the words ‘Immigrant scum’ and ‘Polish out’. Clearly, the indigenous trio see the newcomers as rivals.

Migration has been around since bacteria evolved with flagella to propel themselves, but it is still a painful process in many respects. Red Dot’s exhibition has captured that.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Hundreds Condemn Gaza Slaughter In Liverpool

As the young conscripts of the Israeli Defense Forces prepared for a ground invasion, about three hundred people protested in Liverpool against the now week-long military assault on Gaza Strip Palestinians.

The event - which was organised at very short notice through word of mouth and over the internet - began at the 'bombed out' church on Berry Street. This venue was hollowed during the 1941 Liverpool blitz, and more than one person commented on similarities between the Nazi policy of genocide and that of the Israeli state. A large crowd gathered, before a march down Renshaw Street and Lime Street, to St George's Plateau for the rally.

There were speeches from Merseyside Stop the War Coalition, Merseyside CND and Liverpool Friends of Palestine representatives, as well as Islamic, Christian and Jewish campaigners. All speakers expressed their horror and outrage at the ongoing Operation, which had reportedly been in planning for over six months, since around the time Israel and Hamas signed a ceasefire agreement. Each speech urged people to express their anger by putting pressure on politicians.

More photos here.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Che: Part One (15)

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Written by Ernesto 'Che' Guevara (memoirs), Peter Buchman, Benjamin A. van der Veen (screenplay)

On general release from 1st January 2009

Fifty years ago, a group of insurgents overthrew the dictatorship of Cuban President General Fulgencio Batista, who had been supported by the United States. This anniversary provides us with a perfect opportunity to examine the Cuban revolution, but unfortunately Steven Soderbergh spurns it with his biopic of Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, the iconic guerilla leader.

It's not as if the director hasn't done his homework. Each battle sequence is carefully staged, for maximum historical accuracy (or at least according to what Guevara said in his memoirs). Although jungle warfare is definitely a change of scenery for the man behind the Ocean's franchise, the same love of tactics and strategies is apparent. However, fighting a revolution is very different to a heist, and people go into it for very different reasons. Those reasons are lost amongst the three dimensional chess game that Soderbergh presents, and the results are therefore far from inspirational.

When we first meet Che (played by Benicio Del Toro), he is sitting around a dinner table in Mexico, with Fidel Castro (Demián Bichir) amongst others. The year is 1955, a couple of years after Guevara's travels through Latin America with his friend Alberto Granado, which were documented in 2004's The Motorcycle Diaries. Though he thinks Castro may be a bit crazy, the Argentinian doctor agrees to join the 26th July Movement, and try to dethrone the hated Batista. Che, Fidel, and eighty others then sail to Cuba aboard the Granma - a cabin cruiser as ancient as it sounds.

From there, the next two hours takes us through intense and arduous guerilla warfare - relived in painstaking detail - right through to the taking of Santa Clara on 1st January 1958, and victory. These battle scenes are intercut with re-enacted excerpts from Guevara's 1964 trip to New York, where he addressed the United Nations. Here - as in the jungle - Del Toro plays Guevara with great passion, if little subtlety, and his speech gives some clues as to the iconic fighter's motivations. Some, but not enough.

Born into a comfortably off family with a leftist background, Guevara was clearly deeply affected by the suffering he saw on his youthful journey through Central and Southern America. He later stayed in Guatemala, where he saw popularly elected President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán fall victim of a US-engineered coup. In the absence of a strong class-based struggle against profit and empire, his idea of guerilla war against the "capitalist octopuses" was formed. For him - and many like him throughout the majority world, guns and bombs rather than strikes and factory occupations suddenly seemed like they could provide a way out of the misery.

Very little of this is shown in part one. Instead, Soderbergh's Guevara is an abstraction - someone who wears the same clothes, talks the same way and even wheezes like the Argentinian anti-imperialist, but shows little humanity. We see the body moving, but we don’t see why it moves, and it has less character than Alberto Korda's famous photograph.

Next month, Part Two takes Che into government, the Congo, and Bolivia, where he meets his death.

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