Wednesday, March 25, 2009

John Moores Students Protest Against Cuts

John Moores Vice Chancellor Michael Brown fled a group of 150 angry students and their supporters in his BMW (complete with JMU 1 numberplate) this afternoon. In doing so, he postponed a showdown over his plans to cut thirty-four courses from September.

Following betrayal by the NUS rep, students only found out about the cuts when they were announced in the Daily Post on 13th March, and today was their first public response.

Acting independently of 'their' union, which stands exposed as a tool of JMU bosses, students marched from the student union building on Maryland Street, to the V.C.'s office in Rodney Street. There they were met with dust swept up by Brown's car, a two man security team, and a police officer. The security guards initially refused protesters entry to the forecourt, but relented and allowed them as far as the front door. The group heard speeches and chanted for about twenty minutes, before moving on to the Dean Walters building on Upper Duke Street, where many of the subjects facing the axe are currently located. Chants of "they say cut back, we say fight back", "whose education? our education!", and "students and workers, unite and fight" drew many people to the windows!

At present, the student group is demanding:
  • no course cuts - all cut courses with UCAS applications to be offered in the prospectus for 2010/11
  • no job losses - laid off temporary contract staff to be offered reinstatement, with written guarantee of no job cuts for two academic years
  • no closed door decisions - V.C. to give a written proposal of how programme planning will be democratised
Students within the group are aware of the fact that the government is giving bankers hundreds of billions, whilst preparing public sector cutbacks, of which the Wirral library cuts are just a bitter foretaste. They are therefore keen to make links with workers in other sectors, as well as students at the University of Liverpool (which also faces cuts), and are discussing more militant types of action. If many of the students get their way, Michael Brown will have to confront the reality of their resistance sooner rather than later. He can run, but he can't hide.

Click here for more photos.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Age Of Stupid (12A)

Written and directed by Franny Armstrong

Screening at FACT from 20th March 2009

The Age Of Stupid is extremely depressing, and this isn't a good thing for a film that's supposed to make people want to save the planet. It’s not the sheer enormity of the unfolding environmental crisis it presents that’s so disheartening; it’s the lack of a perspective for rescuing our species and millions of others.

Acclaimed veteran actor Pete Postlethwaite, who plays The Archivist, holds a mix of documentary footage and animations together. In the year 2055, this lone survivor is assembling a package to blast off into space, a warning to take care of your ecosystem, because the one on Earth has been almost entirely wiped out by catastrophic runaway climate change. “We could have saved ourselves, but we didn't”, he dejectedly gasps. “What state of mind were we in, to face extinction and simply shrug it off?”

The bulk of the documentary footage flits between a few of the globe’s residents. Jeh Wahdia is a young Indian businessman, who has the curious idea that starting an Indian easyJet and shouting at his employees will end the poverty he occasionally glimpses from various speeding vehicles. Layefa Malemi tries to escape disease and destitution by becoming a doctor in a Nigerian village devastated by Shell Oil. Alvin DuVernay is a Shell employee who heroically rescued trapped Hurricane Katrina victims. Piers Guy is an English wind farm developer, who is constantly frustrated by anti campaigners.

So if we 'could' save ourselves, how exactly?

George Monbiot and Mark Lynas pop up and urge viewers to lobby governments for reductions in carbon emissions (whilst not mentioning they both favour nuclear power). However, the film’s political message is that millions of people are buying bottled water, taking those cheap flights, and generally making lifestyle choices that will condemn us all to rack and ruin. Time and time again, with his trademark hangdog expression, Postlethwaite disbelievingly asks why people 'were' so stupid as to commit mass suicide in this way. But he has no answer, so neither does Franny Armstrong, presumably.

When Armstrong studied zoology at University College, London, the title of her thesis was 'Is the human species suicidal?' Since then she has made four films, including the McDonald's-bashing McLibel. The first three all addressed the chaos that corporations unleash in their hunger for profit. But it seems that’s as deep as her analysis goes. For her, humanity can only be understood as atomised individuals who together form a self-destructive species. The implicit message is that people should somehow rein-in their own aspirations. She seems to condemn people flying from their poverty on easyJet just as much as she condemns George Bush for starting an oil war, because these are both ‘selfish’ acts. This is simplistic.

Yes, people – like all living organisms – will try to act out of self-interest, and under the present economic system, this will have negative environmental effects. For example, the campaigners against wind farms are concerned about their property prices, and they would be crazy not to be. For them, the tiny-in-the-scheme-of-things impact a single wind farm would have is outweighed by their dreams of a financially secure retirement. It is all perfectly understandable.

Circumstances are posing the big question of the twenty-first century more urgently with each passing second. That question is not ‘should I really be eating those special offer Chilean grapes?’ It is ‘should the system of production and distribution be organised to benefit a tiny elite, or all humanity?’

The planet-wide social crisis is providing conditions where billions of people’s short- and long-term interests are aligning.

Merseyside Jobs Cull Begins

Merseyside Job Centre queues grew by the largest amount in eighteen years last month, bringing back memories of traumatic times before the 'regeneration' gold rush and the credit boom.

The number of Jobseekers' Allowance claimants in the region - which officially includes Liverpool, Wirral, Sefton, Knowsley, Halton and St Helens - increased by 7,532 in February, taking the total to 52,524. This represents a month on month rise of 7.14%, the most severe since 1991.

This would be bad enough in isolation, but it is merely the most dramatic of several recent increases. Since July last year, the Merseyside JSA claimant count has risen by a massive 47%. It is important to note this does not include people who left the area once their job ended.

Most job losses seem to have come in the retail sector, with the biggest single cut coming when the Littlewoods Shop Direct call centre in Crosby was closed, making 1,150 people redundant. Many shop workers have also been shown the door, including some at outlets in the brand new Liverpool One complex.

There are also fears about jobs in the local industrial sector. This week it has been announced that three hundred jobs will go at the Tulip meat processing plant in Bromborough, but there are major concerns about jobs in the car making industry, which is in global crisis. Workers at the Vauxhall plant at Ellesmere Port have already had a four day week pushed on them by union leaders, but still face the possibility of redundancy. Similarly, Jaguar workers at Halewood may well face similar pressures. Because union leaders accept the 'logic' of the capitalist system, and unions are organised on a national basis, bureaucrats are encouraging workers to sacrifice their own interests on the altar of profit, and compete with their class brothers and sisters in other countries.

Jobs also look set to go in Wirral, as the council closes public services.

As I predicted in my January article 'Liverpool 2009: Capital of Crisis?', the region will experience huge job losses this year, and these statistics are merely a taster. The growth in Liverpool's economy was largely based on tourism, consumerism, and government jobs. Tourist numbers are now tumbling from their Capital of Culture highs. Consumerism is no longer fuelled by easy credit and high employment. Government jobs are threatened by spending cuts that will become necessary in the years ahead. The few remaining manufacturing jobs are threatened by falling orders. Effective wage cuts are also being handed out, with the average 'rise' currently 0.5% below inflation, and many workers facing freezes, cuts and lost hours.

All of this highlights the insanity and chaos of capitalism. Working class people do not suddenly need less transport, food, books or anything else. However, they can no longer afford as much as they previously could, precisely because of attacks from the system. Capitalism has become a chain, holding back the development of humanity. That chain must be broken.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Climate for Change

FACT centre, Wood Street (13th March - 31st May 2009)

Over the past year or so, as the global credit crunch has turned to recession and inevitable depression, the idea that the current way of organising society is unsustainable has become almost commonplace.

In the United States, a relatively unknown Chicago politician has risen to the presidency, basing his whole campaign on the vague buzzword of 'change'. As each day passes, it is becoming clearer that this was just as cynical as any other marketing technique. However, it inspired many millions to fanatically support him, and this illustrates a hunger for different ways of doing things. Those in power might be unable and unwilling to keep up, but FACT has plugged into this mood, with a thought-provoking exhibition and series of events.

The enormity of the economic crisis dominates the upstairs Gallery 2, in the shape of Melanie Gilligan’s short film ‘Crisis in the Credit System’. This is the first artwork I’ve seen that registers the sheer panic of the current situation. The shredding of old ideas about how financial markets and economies work – essentially that they would go on expanding indefinitely – is realistically brought to the screen, as five bank employees describe their own personal crisis, and grasp in vain for understanding. But beyond this emotional effect and a torrent of suddenly everyday news terms like ‘fundamentals’, ‘derivatives’ and ‘volatility’, it seems Gilligan herself doesn’t understand why the bubble has burst, and she sees no way forward beyond the ‘regulations’ a character tamely proposes towards the end. Of course, she’s not exactly alone in that; none of the ‘financial wizards’ have much of a clue either.

Nik Kosmas and Daniel Keller’s ‘Forever’ rests in the opposite corner. An installation created during the last few weeks, it is a post-apocalyptic computer terminal which plays a Windows 98 screensaver ‘forever’, or at least until the electricity shuts off. It isn’t a stunning artistic achievement, but it certainly reflects soaring levels of anxiety about the years ahead.

New York Times – Special Edition’ is the final work on show in Gallery 2. This spoof newspaper generated thousands of real life headlines last November, one week after the election of Barack Obama, when it was distributed free of charge in Manhattan. The front page splash for July 4th 2009 is ‘Iraq War Ends’, and each of the fourteen pages is crammed with stories that American liberals would no doubt love to see. The paper is well put together and humorous, but it is also effectively dated, due to Obama’s systematic attacks on the hopes of all but the richest of those who put him in power.

Two intriguing projects are based in the Media Lounge. Designed by Danish collective N55, ‘SHOP’ is an attempt to create a moneyless economy in a world without borders, where people effectively barter with each other, offering and exchanging goods and services. The project has been running since 2002, and whilst it hasn’t brought about the end of the profit system, it has challenged beliefs in its permanence. ‘Ghana Think Tank’ also stands conventional wisdom on its head, giving majority world citizens a chance to offer advice on Western problems.

But it is Gallery 1 that will be the hub of the FACT’s extremely ambitious project. For ten weeks, it will host scores of meetings, discussions and workshops, each supposedly challenging the crisis-ridden status quo in some way, whether from an economic perspective, an environmental one, or some combination of the two. And on one wall there is a display where visitors are invited to describe how they imagine the ‘perfect’ Liverpool of 2050. Some of these imaginings are silly, such as five-person dragon rides across the Mersey, but others appear more possible, like free summer cinema screenings in Sefton Park.

Why can’t we be materially secure and have fluffy environmental niceness? Why must we live insecure, alienated lives that poison the planet?

From 8pm on 8th April in Gallery 1, I will be taking part in a discussion organised by Shift magazine. I will argue that an economically and environmentally sustainable future cannot be created within a system of rival capitalist states, and that the international working class must take control of the planet to save the human species and millions of others from catastrophe. I will also be arguing for those free summer cinema screenings in Sefton Park.

Click here for details of the Gallery 1 calendar.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Three Monkeys (15)

Directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Written by Ebru Ceylan, Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Ercan Kesal
Screening at FACT from 6th March 2009

Like the third wise monkey from the Japanese proverb, the characters in Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan's latest film speak no evil, on screen at least. But suspicion and secrecy about what we don't see or hear permeates every single second of screen time, contributing to 109 minutes of often gripping but deeply flawed minimalist cinema.

In the fascinating first scene, we see businessman and politician Servet (Ercan Kesel) kill a man in a late night car accident. He asks his driver Eyüp (Yavuz Bingol) to save his bosses' reputation by claiming responsibility. In return, Servet promises to provide for Eyüp's wife Hacer (Hatice Aslan) and late teenage son Ismail (Rifat Sungar) whilst he is in prison, and pay a reward on his release.

When Ismail fails an important exam, he hits on the idea of following his father and becoming a professional driver, but for that he needs a car, and for that he needs an advance on his dad's fee. When Hacer goes to meet Servet and ask for the money, they begin a liaison that will have terrible consequences.

Aslan, Bingol, and Sungar deliver performances which satisfy every requirement of their demanding director. Ceylan's stunning direction and cinematography creates a believable working class landscape where every drop of water, tick of the clock, and centimetre of floor space is vital and contested. This partly makes up for some serious deficiencies in the screenplay.

For instance, none of the characters display particularly admirable traits. Eyüp is a thuggish, possessive and thoroughly unpleasant father, Ismail is a clinging yet hateful son, and Hacer meekly submits to the abuse of the three men in her life. Of course, all of these personalities exist in abundance everywhere, but when we look as deeply into the characters' eyes as Ceylan forces us to, we must ask them each 'Why?' The director provides no answers and no real clues.

Even Servet - the exploitative semi-gangster - is poorly drawn. We see him losing his race in the 2007 general election, but he accepts this defeat with barely a shrug. In reality that year's vote was a bitterly fought one, even by Turkish standards. As a candidate of the 'secularist' section of the ruling elite, we might expect Servet to be a little more upset at the local and national triumph of his Islamist rivals.

This lack of historical and social perspective often goes hand in hand with a certain kind of lonely pessimism. Ceylan confirms this in interviews, where he talks of recent suffering being the necessary result of an unchanging 'human nature'. In other words: things are bad, they have always been this bad, and they will always be this bad.

As the superstructure of global society trembles at the tremors of an economic earthquake, the time is fast approaching when this kind of detached approach to art will no longer be viable. If Ceylan puts himself where the action is, he will be able to use make great use of his visual skills, and maybe become one of the most important directors of the next decade. If not, irrelevance beckons.

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