Thursday, March 31, 2011

Funding Cuts Bring More Pain In The Arts

Liverpool's Urban Strawberry Lunch has been sacrificed to pay for bankers and war
Arts Council England has announced that it will be cutting funding for more than two hundred cultural organisations from 2012. The losers include theatres, galleries, and artist groups, all of which now face an extremely uncertain future. This comes after the coalition government cut the Arts Council's budget by £100 million in the Comprehensive Spending Review. Thousands of cultural practioners now face ruin, for the cost of two Apache attack helicopters, or 10% of this year's bonuses at RBS - the state-owned bank.

At a time when many are struggling to keep a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs, arts cuts may seem like an almost trivial matter. Yet ever more artists are amongst those battling to make ends meet. Also, access to culture is essential for a full life, no matter what economic background a person comes from.

Big name losers included the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Opera House, and the National Theatre, which saw their budgets slashed by 15%. The English National Opera lost 10%, the Almeida Theatre 39% over three years, and 42% for the Institute of Contemporary Arts.

For smaller scale projects, the effects could be even more devastating. Liverpool was the 'European Capital of Culture' just three years ago, but the Bluecoat Display Centre, Spike Theatre, the Windows Project and Urban Strawberry Lunch will now be forced to consider their future after losing their funding entirely. The hugely popular Africa Oyé festival has lost 10%, the FACT exhibition space and cinema 11%, Everyman and Playhouse theatres 4.9%, and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic 11.1%.

The government has suggested that such organisations approach 'philanthropists' - i.e. immensely wealthy people who would turn the groups into their own personal playthings. In many cases, prices will have to increase, further deterring working class people. 

In a way, the catastrophic cuts to art and culture are of a piece with the government's 'Big Society' concept. Subsidies to non-profitable organisations will be slashed or abolished, while those who want to keep them afloat for the benefit of society as a whole must pay out of their own pocket, or donate their time for free.

Arts organisations are often seen as elitist by large numbers of working class people, and this is a challenge. This will only be overcome by a general radicalisation in art - away from navel-gazing psychology or bland postmodernism, and towards a vivid depiction of society as it affects the immense majority. 

In the words of Emma Goldman, it is necessary to stand with "freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody's right to beautiful, radiant things." As a step towards that, we must oppose cuts to arts organisations, just as we oppose cuts to the health service. Both are essential for a the promotion of a fully, health and happy life.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What Now After The TUC's London Demo?

In the words of Percy Shelley, 'Ye are many, they are few'
Saturday brought the largest expression of class anger Britain has seen since the Poll Tax, as hundreds of thousands marched through London on the Trades Union Congress-organised march against the government's massive cuts. A significant number also took direct action, showing that they trust neither the TUC nor the Labour Party to fight back against the super-rich on their behalf.

The day began with a huge march from Embankment, past Parliament, to Hyde Park, where Labour leader Ed Miliband was to address (and get booed by) the crowd. Due to the density of the march, the three mile journey took three hours to complete. Despite this, the TUC's 'estimate' of 250,000 marchers was even less than that of the police, while some participants have guesstimated there were about a million protesters present. If that is the case, then it was in the same league as the biggest march against the Iraq war, which had received overwhelmingly more media promotion over the preceding weeks. Significantly, the TUC had limited their call-out to public sector workers - around a tenth of the population.

The crowd outside occupied Fortnum & Masons
As the march unfolded, so did the ruling class propaganda. Politicians and pundits on all channels portrayed the marchers as 'deficit deniers', who represented a small minority of the population (they actually represented a majority). Then there was the minority of that 'minority' - those taking direct action. Police chiefs, union bosses and Sky News all agreed that they were merely "criminals who have nothing to do with the real message, hijacking a peaceful protest". Yes, we were being asked to believe that people occupying shops owned by tax evaders weren't actually against the cuts at all - they just enjoyed chaos. Of course, this was the truth turned upside-down.

Many excellent accounts of the direct action have already been written. Phil Dickens has blogged on the manoueuvers of the Radical Workers Bloc. Laurie Penny has described the occupation of posh department store Fortnum & Masons (which ended in police dirty tricks and a mass arrest). Auntie Farr, 1st Casualty and Fitwatch have described the 'Battle of Trafalgar Square', where police kettled and ferociously attacked a street party inspired by the Tahrir Square revolutionaries of Cairo. For those looking to cut through the media fog, all these eyewitness accounts are well worth reading.

Only a working class 'regime' could redistribute wealth to those who create it
But what now, as the dust settles, the shattered glass is replaced and the criminal charges are processed? If a new workers' movement is to emerge over the coming months, it must completely reject the position of Miliband and the TUC, which is that "There is a need for difficult choices, and some cuts."

In opposition to this, we must fight every single cut. Against the lie that the bankers create wealth, we must openly declare that it is working people who create all wealth. After the 'March For The Alternative' failed to propose an alternative, we must do so: it is the wealth of the elites which must be confiscated, and put to more productive common use. In the midst of struggle, we must declare solidarity with all those opposing the capitalist system, and put forward a vision of a new, equal, and truly democratic society.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Counter-Revolution In Egypt

The protests continue in Tahrir Square, angering the miltary
It's just six weeks since US-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak was forced from power by the Egyptian working class, and replaced by a military junta. In that time, the military has succeeded in passing a new repressive constitution, and now effectively banning strikes and protests - the very tools which brought down Mubarak in the first place. While many Egyptians initially had some belief that the army were guardians of their revolution, these illusions have rapidly evaporated. But the material needs which forced poor Egyptians into battle two months ago remain unmet, so the stage is set for yet another confrontation.

Though ousting Mubarak was a major aim of the 'January 25th movement', it was ultimately driven by economic imperatives, rather than personal hatred of the man at the top. It was widely believed that once Mubarak had gone, the people could present their demands to the new officials, who would respond favourably. This has not proved to be the case, and a certain disillusionment is setting in. Ali Fotouh, a public transport driver, told AhramOnline:
"We really had hopes that the new government will support us and look into our demands. We expected them to say we have all of your legal demands on our desks and there is a timeline of a month or two within which they will be achieved."
However in the context of working people struggling to make ends meet, disillusionment can quickly turn into anger rather than despair. Fotouh continued:
"This is not fair, why don’t you solve our demands so that we don’t go on strikes? This tone reminds me of the old days of Mubarak, threats and oppression used by the regime. This is no longer valid after January 25 Revolution.”
Safi - brought to you by the same people who brought you a strike ban
In trying to satisfy their own post-Mubarak needs, the working class are coming face to face with the material interests of the military brass, which owns vast swathes of the factories and land throughout the country. As head on the junta, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi is effectively CEO of the military businesses. Just one of these - the Ministry of Military Production - employs forty thousand civilians and takes in hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Military companies sell everything from medical equipment to laptops, and sewing machines to Safi - Egypt’s most successful bottled water brand. It has been estimated that the military account for more than ten per cent of the country's owning class.

The land owned by the generals has been converted into gated communities over the last decade or so, providing luxury housing for the obscenely rich, including Mubarak himself, at his Sharm el-Sheikh palace. Other plots are converted into water-intensive golf courses, in a nation where millions lack running water.

From this outline of the generals' interests, it is obvious that any new workers' movement would directly threaten the miltary elite's parasitical lifestyle. With this in mind, it is not surprising that they were quick to urge protesters back to work after the fall of Mubarak. A week after the dictator fled for the safety of Sharm el-Sheikh, generals warned against those who "organise protests that obstruct production and create critical economic conditions that can lead to a worsening of the country’s economy." They said this warning was necessary because “The continuation of instability and its consequences will lead to harming national security.”

There is strong suspicion that the state is trying to whip up tensions between people of various religious backgrounds - a classic 'divide and conquer' tactic. Mounir Megahd of Egyptians Against Discrimination claims that: "Recent reports released have shown the close ties between the state security apparatus and the Salafist movement [...] It has been reported that state security has used them to bomb the Two Saints Church in Alexandria”.

Earlier this month, thousands of demonstrators successfully raided the offices of the secret police in Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities. They seized many documents related to state attacks on Coptic churches while Mubarak was in power, and orders for the phone tapping of callers to political talk shows were also uncovered.

Last Saturday, only 30% of Egyptians bothered to vote for a new rubber stamp constitution, with the remainder showing their growing distrust of the military caste by either abstaining or - in a smaller number of cases - voting against the proposals. But the changes were swiftly followed by a visit from US Defense Secretary Robert Gates - who pledged millions more in 'aid' would flow to the new dictators of Egypt - and by the ban on political action, which threatens jail terms and huge fines for those 'guilty' of fighting for their needs.

Just as in Tunisia, workers in Egypt are discovering that the new boss is pretty much the same as the old boss, and is backed by the same US imperial machine which is bombing its way through Libya. With pro-democracy movements growing in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria, the conditions are ripening for militant, trans-national class struggle throughout the region.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Another "Bankers' Budget" From George Osborne

Osborne was briefly inconvenienced by a small group of courageous female protesters
As Chancellor George Osborne prepared to leave Downing Street for Parliament and deliver his budget on Wednesday afternoon, he found his way temporarily blocked by a small group of courageous female demonstrators. The women locked onto each other, compelling police to remove them from the road. Others held a banner proclaiming "Block the Bankers' Budget". It was a small taste of what is to come, ahead of the big anti-cuts demo on Saturday.

Of course, it was a bankers' budget. In the context of vast unemployment, massive cuts to public services, and skyrocketing inflation, it did nothing to alleviate the suffering of millions. Instead, it focused on making those at the top even more staggeringly rich. This much is now expected of the despised political class.

Osborne's package had been trailed as a 'budget for growth', but in the event, the Chancellor cut growth forecasts from 2.1% to 1.7% this year, and from 2.6% to 2.5% in 2012. Even this seems wildly optimistic, given negative growth (i.e. recession) of 0.5% in the last quarter of 2010, and continued speculation about the future of the euro, and the real worth of the banks' assets.

Money: he has it and you don't
Naturally, a key aim of all chancellors is to promote economic growth - i.e. the more thorough exploitation of the working class. To that end, he announced that the government is accepting Lord Hutton's report on public sector pensions, which recommended (in the refreshingly honest words of a Telegraph article) that government employees "retire later and pay more for a less generous scheme".

Osborne also cheered big business when he proposed a 2% cut in corporation tax and the slashing of red tape (for which read the cutting of regulations which benefit workers and consumers). Ten new 'enterprise zones' will have lower business rates, and looser planning rules. In the US and elsewhere, this type of policy has been linked to poverty pay and precarious employment.

In his televised Budget Statement, Osborne made much of his personal tax reforms, which mean people can earn more before they have to pay tax. But this will be swallowed up by the January VAT rise, a 1% rise in National Insurance contributions, and the current cost of living, when many workers didn't receive pay rises last year.

Tax on fuel went down by a penny per litre, but with oil prices going up by the week, this will provide little relief for struggling households.

Similarly, the extension of the bankers' levy is something of an illusion. It is expected to bring in a mere £2.5 billion, which is a tiny fraction of the trillion pounds the Brown government handed over to the financial aristocrats. At best, it is a pin-prick tax, allowing the Coalition to posture as enemies of the bankers, while the recent 'Project Merlin' settlement proves the exact opposite.

Despite these relatively minor changes to the government's plans, it was quite a quiet budget overall, with the big numbers having been announced just a few months ago, in Osborne's Comprehensive Spending Review.
Some of the anger aroused by the brutal cuts he outlined in November will be felt on the streets of London this coming Saturday. But whatever happens, Saturday must only be the starting gun for a new workers' movement, which could challenge and ultimately overthrow this bankers' government.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Libya: Yet More Blood For Oil

Destroyer the USS Barry fires a Tomahawk missile, to protect people. But who?
On the eighth anniversary of the 'shock and awe' intro to the Iraq invasion, western forces launched yet another imperial 'intervention' in the Middle East. While Obama and Cameron want to distance themselves from Bush and Blair's bloodsoaked legacy, they are once again fighting a war in defence of oil profits.

Almost a month ago, when oil prices spiked and leading politicians started talking about examining "all possible options", I warned that:
"If some combination of western forces are unleashed on Libya, it will be to guarantee that the oil keeps flowing to Europe. Though it would no doubt be dressed up as a humanitarian intervention, humanitarian concerns would be an irrelevance compared to the dollar, and attempts to maintain US hegemony in the area."
Precisely this has now taken place. On the ridiculous and transparent pretext of protecting rebels from state violence, the US, UK and France amongst others are now raining death from the Libyan skies. This, we were told before the invasion began, would be to establish a 'no-fly zone'. The bombing of Gaddafi's Bab al Azizia compound has shown this to be an embarrassingly inadequate 'humanitarian' figleaf for murder and plunder. According to the Daily Mail, MI6 agents are phoning army generals and making them an offer they can't refuse - defect to the National Transitional Council or die. Meanwhile, Libyan state media has reported that a children's hospital was destroyed on Saturday night.

Gaddafi was an ally of the gangsters now attacking him unti very recently
Imperialist policy is always characterised by breathtaking hypocrisy, but the current Arab uprisings are forcing Obama, Clinton, Cameron and the like into statements that would have made George Orwell's head spin. In launching his first war, Obama declared that: "we cannot stand idly by when a tyrant tells his people that there will be no mercy, and his forces step up their assaults". Yet this is precisely what is also happening in Yemen and Bahrain, where US-backed dictators are trying to massacre and intimidate their popular, using US-supplied weapons in the hands of US-trained forces.

The US position on Egypt is no less absurd. Last week, Hillary Clinton toured Tahrir Square - the Cairo home of the movement that toppled Mubarak, another longtime US ally. “To see where this revolution happened and all that it has meant to the world is extraordinary for me”, she gushed. It was “just thrilling to see where this happened.” This, just seven weeks after she described the hated despot as "looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people."

As I explained in my previous post on Libya, the nation has had a long and complicated relationship with western imperialism. However, Gaddafi had been in the fold for seven years before the uprising against him began, with much oil flowing to Europe, and big name politicians such as Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi forming whatever 'friendships' can exist between such people. Only when the tide seemed to turn against Gaddafi did Obama and Clinton publicly contemplate attacking the country, and enforcing its own will - the more thorough exploitation of Libyan oil resources by the participating 'coalition'.

Another consideration for the ruling elites in Washington, London and Paris will be the importance of gaining a military foothold in a country that borders Egypt and Tunisia - where protesters are showing that the removal of their respective dictators has not satisfied them, and that they hunger for improved social conditions. Such demands are already putting them into conflict with the new regimes, and so will necessitate yet more revolutionary struggles in the months to come. There is a real danger that - once the Gaddafi regime has been overthrown - the forces stationed in Libya will put to use against revolutionary movements throughout the region.

Of course, none of this has been picked up by the corporate media, which from its jingoist wing in The Sun to the 'anti-war' wing in The Independent have fallen lock-step behind the politicians. The lessons of Iraq have not been learned by 'mainstream' journalists, but they have been learned by the vast majority of working class people in each of the invading nations. With the Libyan mission costing the UK government £3 million a day - money which will be clawed out of our backs in George Osbourne's budget tomorrow - it is we, not our rulers, who are potentially the greatest allies of those suffering in North Africa, and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Friday, March 18, 2011

140 Years Since The Best French Revolution (So Far)

The first barricades defending the world of the workers from the world of capital
A critic once described William Blake's poetry as being "in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language". Well the William Blake's poetry of historical events began one hundred and forty years ago today, when the people of Paris first raised barricades against the government of Adolphe Thiers.

The uprising that created the Paris Commune had its roots in the Franco-Prussian war, a rising gap between rich and poor, and food shortages. Many thousands of Parisians were part of the National Guard - a citzens' militia that had been set up in the First French Revolution three quarters of a century earlier. On 18th March, the National Guard built barricades to defend the workers of Paris from both the Prussian and regular French armies. Thiers ordered regulars to seize the workers' cannons at Montmartre, but they mutinied, and the regular General Lecomte was dragged from his horse and killed.

Within days, recallable delegates had been elected to a body - which Engels later described as the first working "dictatorship of the proletariat" - with full suffrage for all, including women. In just two months, the Commune achieved so much, including:
  • the separation of church and state, with churches allowed to stay open if they allowed political meetings when there were no services scheduled
  • the abolition of rent
  • the abolition of night work in the many Paris bakeries
  • introduction of pensions to the unmarried companions and children of National Guards killed by the regulars (in large part due to the work of feminists such as Louise Michel in the Commune)
  • the free return of all workmen's tools and household items valued up to 20 francs from the city's pawn shops
  • the postponement of commercial debt obligations, and abolition of debt interest
  • the right of employees to take over a business if their owners fled - as many did
However, these were merely intended to be initial measures, and there was wide support for the full abolition of capitalism in Paris, and indeed throughout France. As Marx remarked in his The Civil War In France pamphlet that year:
“Yes, gentlemen, the Commune intended to abolish that class property which makes the labour of the many the wealth of the transforming the means of production, land, and capital, now chiefly the means of enslaving and exploiting labour, into mere instruments of free and associated labour.”
Alas, the fate of all isolated rebellions awaited the Communards, whose revolution was drowned in blood at the end of May 1871. During what became known as 'the bloody week', many thousands were murdered by the regular army, most famously at the Père Lachaise cemetery.

Many Communards were murdered at Père Lachaise cemetery
Despite the ultimate disappointment, the Commune made a huge impact on working class politics at the time, and was often proclaimed a blueprint for the future on an international scale. Of course criticisms were made, and strategic lessons could be learned from the defeat. Nevertheless, until the Russian Revolution displaced it in socialist consciousness nearly fifty years later, it was used as the best illustration of what could be done if workers refused to go to war for 'their' ruling class, and instead started collectively organising their own lives.

Sadly there is no comprehensive documentary on the TV schedules for tonight, and there will be no screening of La Commune - Peter Watkins' film reconstruction. Why not? Of course, if there were, there would be huge interest, so that can't be used as an excuse. But to objectively examine the Commune is to praise its achievements, so helping to raise working class awareness of our own history is never considered by media bosses.

May we celebrate the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary much better a decade from now! Vive la Commune!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Japanese Catastrophe, Nuclear Power, and Capitalism

Japan's military is desperately dumping sea water onto nuclear reactors
Whenever a natural disaster occurs - be it a hurricane, an earthquake or tsunami - the immediate impact is horrible enough. But the extent of the crisis which develops out of it is something else altogether, and it always reveals stark truths about the capitalist system.

When Hurricane Katrina hit the US in 2005, two thousand were killed, and more than a million were displaced. Perhaps most infamously, for many days twenty thousand were left to rot in the New Orleans Superdome. Of course, the intense flooding of the Mississippi had only occurred because officials had continually ignored warnings that a major hurricane would breach the levees. Government unwillingness to spend money satisyfing poor people's needs was the root cause of the humanitarian catastrophe.

Just last month, many New Zealanders were left devastated when a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck in Christchurch, the nation's second most populous city. Weeks later, Christchurch residents were complaining bitterly that they lacked basic services, such as water, sanitation and power. Again, the government was almost indifferent to the suffering of the immense majority.

But the horrors of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami reveal something else about the capitalist system: it will even play fast and loose with nuclear power. The Fukushima Daiichi reactors currently being drowned in sea water by the Japanese military have 'Mark 1' containment vessels, which are apparently substandard, but far cheaper than 'Mark 2' vessels. 'Mark 1' has been known to be deficient since the 1970s, when Stephen Hanauer of the US Atomic Energy Commission declared that they should be discontinued due to "unacceptable safety risks". Radiation leaks have been measured at 1 millisevert - ten times the yearly dose correlated with a 1 per cent rise in cancer cases.

Japan has long relied on nuclear technology for much of its power, because it lacks the fossil fuel resources that many countries use. When oil prices started rising in 1973, Japanese politicians decided nuclear was a better bet, allowing the Japanese ruling class some independence from possible rivals.

I have long argued that "the only way to create a sustainable future for our species is to have a working class-led revolution." I don't have enough scientific knowledge to express an opinion on whether nuclear power could ever be safe, and I have seen arguments on both sides. However, if there are to be nuclear power stations, they should be made as invulnerable as technically possible, and quite obviously should not be situated in a region that is particularly prone to earthquakes.

The chaos unfolding in Japan right now is the chaos of the 'free market' - with bargain basement nuclear technology being used in what was undeniably a dangerous place for it to be. Energy production must be organised on a rational and international basis, and for that we need to abolish the profit system.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Utopia: A Sustainable Environment

In my recent statement on the winding-down of Climate Camp in favour of more economy-focused actions, I argued that "the only way to create a sustainable future for our species is to have a working class-led revolution."

I firmly believe this to be the case. As indeed the internal functioning of climate camps demonstrated, enough technology has already been developed to provide for our energy needs, without burning any more fossil fuels.

Unfortunately for our chances of surviving as a species, capitalism can't be run like a climate camp. It constantly seeks out short term profit, and can't look beyond the bottom line, to a future where climate chaos has been unleashed due to carbon emissions. Locked into global competition by the nation state system, politicians won't do anything they can't make a buck off. Capitalism is the pursuit of infinite growth, on a finite planet.

Only in a communist society - where we were free from the shackles of the profit motive - could we start rationally planning production and consumption, in such a way that simultaneously provides for human needs, and respects the environment.

That might seem paradoxical. After all, in a world of free access to goods and services, surely we would all use far more resources than we currently do. Perhaps that would be true at first. But things would be shared far more than they are now. They would also be built to last.

This is something I think about every time I buy a pair of shoes, which is about every four months. Obviously, because I walk around outside, I need shoes. Sadly, I can't ever seem to afford a good pair, which might last years, but would likely cost more than a hundred pounds. So I buy a cheap pair for £20 or less. When that pair breaks down, I need to get another one. This is economic and environmental madness, but it's a cycle that I - and many others - are trapped in. And whereas now these shoes are shipped from the sweatshop economies of Asia all the way to my high street, they would instead be made by local people who actually enjoyed the process - even the art - of making shoes.

I think this is quite a powerful example, because it is a metaphor that could be expanded to so many areas of consumer goods. We need local production of durable consumer goods, made of the most environmentally-friendly (rather than the cheapest) components. All this is unimaginable under capitalism, but it is a very realistic prospect in my utopia.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

March 2011 Issue Of The Commune Published

The March issue of The Commune has been published, in plenty of time for the big TUC-organised anti-cuts demonstration on the 26th. The Commune group's take on that march and the anti-cuts struggle is the lead article.

On that theme, David Huckerby tells us about the development of an anti-cuts movement in Sheffield - Nick Clegg's old stomping ground, and Izzy Parrott writes on the fight for housing in the London borough of Hackney. I also chip in on the rapidly shrinking 'Big Society'.

Further afield, Taimour Ley examines post-Mubarak Egypt, Dara Hugh provides an assessment of Irish politics following the destruction of Fine Fail, and Jeffrey Webber tells us about his new book on Evo Morales and the state of play in Bolivia.

Click here for a PDF version, or contact The Commune at if you would like to buy a printed copy (£1 + 50p postage) or set up a subscription (£12 a year UK/£16 EU/£20 international).

Why the 'Left Parties' Are Not Marxist

Defending the objective interests of the working class is the opposite of sectarianism
This article was prompted by a recent post on Phil Dickens' excellent 'Property Is Theft' blog, which he uses to sketch out a theoretical basis for his anarchist beliefs.

In 'Communism Through The Eyes Of Corpses', Dickens argued that:
"Yes, some dead guys with beards said some things which are spot on. But they were still flawed people who got things wrong as well. That’s why anarchists are anarchists and not Proudhonists, Bakuninists, Kropotkinites, etc. If you use the fact that some revered thinker of the past said it as proof of your argument instead citing them as someone who made a particular point more articulately, then what you have is dogmatism and not reasoned argument."
This much is obviously true. 'Marx or Kropotkin says...' is not an argument in of itself. But quotes from dead guys with beards (and dead women) can still help shed light on situations facing us in the here and now. Unfortunately, they are often deployed to confuse rather than enlighten; to 'prove' a point by silencing the opponent, rather than engaging with them. As a result, the theories of the dead guys and women often seem as dusty and lifeless as the remains of those who wrote or spoke them in the first place. In my experience, the worst offenders here are representatives of the Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Party, though I wouldn't exempt representatives of any 'left party', with the possible exception of the orthodox Trotskyist Socialist Equality Party, who publish the almost encyclopedic WSWS.

And yes, 'left party' is in inverted commas. The reason for that is the same reason why their leading voices often take quotes out of context. Though they sometimes quote Marx, and display his image on their website etc., they are not Marxists. Neither - though I have major problems with Trotskyism and Leninism - are they Trotskyists or Leninists. At best, they are left reformists. Of course there are many genuine revolutionaries amongst their rank and file, but I believe their beliefs have no place in their organisations, and could not be expressed democratically without challenging the leadership.

No Marxist encourages any illusions in the trade union bureaucracy or any ruling class parties - you could say it's a deal breaker so far as Marxism is concerned. But the fake 'Marxists' of both the SWP and SP do it with great regularity.

For both parties' papers, the pattern is the same whenever a major industrial dispute comes along. Step one: attack the bosses in question as using tabloid language such as 'greedy', 'fat cat' etc. Step two: advise the relevant union bosses (i.e. only the ones whose sector is immediately concerned) to 'fight', also using tabloid language. Step three: rhetorically ask why the relevant trade union bosses aren't fighting, but don't provide any answers. Step four: call on workers to 'put pressure on' the relevant trade union bosses. Step five: celebrate the calling of a one day strike, and lead readers to believe that this alone will force a rethink. Step six: when the union bosses sell out the strike, either a) express regret that they didn't provide sufficient 'leadership' or b) absurdly declare victory.

During the current implementation of unprecedented cuts to working class living standards, this process gives much comfort to the international banking elite. To understand why, imagine the following scenario: a newly minted, inexperienced activist takes to their first picket line, march or other demonstration. Hungry for some context and advice from more experienced strugglers, the newcomer reads that the union leaders will hopefully sort things out for them if they are asked nicely. The union leaders then don't sort things out for them, and the new activist becomes alienated from radical politics. It's a perfect system: the 'lefts' cover for the union bosses, the union bosses cover for the Labour Party, and the Labour Party cover for the very 'fat cats' denounced on the pages of Socialist Worker and The Socialist.

This could be put down to simple naivety on the part of these 'left' writers, if we didn't take the class composition of their parties into account. But if we are to be Marxist, this is precisely what we must do. The fact is that a significant proportion of leading SWPers and SPEWers are either trade union bureaucrats, or aspire to be trade union bureaucrats. In the case I documented in my 2008 postal workers' strike, then SWPer and Communication Workers Union exec Jane Loftus voted to sell out the strike just when it was gaining momentum, condemning posties to attacks on their jobs, pay and conditions. For their part, the SWP were mildly critical and claimed "There is no reason for the CWU to have signed up to such an agreement". No reason? Really? When bureaucrats always sign up to such defeats? But that was as nothing compared to the treachery of the Socialist Party, who went so far as to celebrate the notion workers had "force[d] management back".

Another hoary old Marx quote is that communists "have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole." In other words, they are not sectarian. The same can't be said about the careerists and opportunists at the top of the main 'left' parties. That's why it sounds like they have corpses in their mouths when they quote genuine revolutionaries.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Why Workers And Union Bosses Are Enemies

Governor Walker's proposals have triggered wildcat strikes
The ongoing dispute over pay and bargaining rights in Wisconsin perfectly illustrates a major theme of my blog: the need for working people to establish organisations which are independent of the corporate unions. I've devoted an article to examining exactly why workers and union bosses are enemies before, but as the economic crisis sharpens, so do the contradictions, so it's worth a re-visit.

Workers and activists in Wisconsin are into their third week of demonstrating against new Governor Scott Walker's budget plans. The state Capitol building has been occupied, and teachers have organised mass wildcat strikes against plans which will cost them, firefighters, and other government employees nearly 20% of their pay packet, as well as stripping them of collective bargaining rights, effectively busting their union.

However, the role of the union leaders has been to try and persuade teachers back to work, while encouraging illusions in the state's Democratic Party - whose senators have fled for Illinois, denying Walker the number of votes he needs to push the bill through. But the Democrats have indicated that they support the huge effective pay cuts, just like their equivalents in other states have.

Union leaders and the state Democrats are one in wanting to savagely attack rank and file workers' conditions, while keeping workers trapped within the confines of union bureaucracy. Head of the Wisconsin State Employees Union Marty Beil has declared: “We are prepared to implement the financial concessions proposed to help bring our state's budget into balance, but … we will not—I repeat we will not—be denied our rights to collectively bargain.”

It should be clear that - in the current sense of the words - 'collective bargaining' is worse than useless as far as protecting the livelihoods of those workers is concerned. If the union tops accept that the state's budget must be brought "into balance" by attacking workers rather than the financial elite who triggered the economic crisis, why should rank and filers worry about losing that 'right'? The only 'collective bargaining' worth a dime is where workers organise on a horizontal basis, and make demands of their bosses, based on an assessment of their own strength.

Marty Beil of the WSEU: "We are prepared to implement the financial concessions..."
The Democrats - like some Republican governors in other states - recognise that union bosses have done them and the ruling class many favours over the years, by channeling their members' anger into safe directions, and calling the odd one day strike when steam needed to be released. They also value the funding that unions traditionally provide for Democratic candidates come election time.

For union bosses, the equation is even more simple. If public sector unions are effectively banned in the state of Wisconsin, they will lose that dues base, which funds their very comfortable lifestyles. The task of the bureaucracy is therefore to satisfy all Governor Walker's demands for concessions from their membership, in the hope that he too will come to appreciate corporate unions' worth to the elite, and withdraw his ban on 'collective bargaining' - i.e. dues collection.

Though the specifics vary from place to place and from industry to industry, this pattern can be seen everywhere workers pay for the upkeep of their fake representatives in the 'union movement'. It is a necessary result of the current state of capitalism - hyper-globalised, hyper-unequal, and wracked by crisis. It falls to rank and filers to provide an alternative - a task the teachers of Wisconsin have shown is more than possible. Meanwhile, the non-hierarchical Industrial Workers of the World union is calling for a general strike in Wisconsin, and that idea has 1,335 fans on Facebook.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Climate Camp Is Dead! Where Now For Climate Action?

Capitalism is crisis; revolution is the solution
Last night, the Camp for Climate Action released an 'official' statement, announcing that there would no climate camps either this summer or in the future. Citing the "near-collapse of the financial system; droughts in the Amazon, floods in Pakistan; a new government in the UK; a violent programme of unprecedented cuts; food prices rising and real incomes eroding; revolutions across the Middle East", the group has decided to "team up with the anti-cuts and anti-austerity movements and play a crucial role in the revolutionary times ahead". I welcome the statement, and the consensus reached at a Dorset meeting last week.

In 2008, after two years of skepticism, I decided to attend the camp at Kingsnorth in Kent, where people were protesting against a proposed new coal-fired power station. On returning home, I wrote a lengthy piece called 'Climate Camp and Class' for Shift magazine. The article examined the successes, failures and contradictions of the camp.

In one paragraph, I described how:
"Though the Climate Camp website is declaring the week a resounding success, it can surely be judged a valiant failure in terms of its stated objectives. E.ON were inconvenienced for a few hours, but Kingsnorth was not shut down. Some campers learned about non-hierarchical organising and strategies for sustainable living, but this made little impact on the wider public. ‘Direct action’ became a media buzzword, but only as something irresponsible and to be feared. Carbon emissions became a hot topic, but in the context of the above, only as ‘footprints’ to feel guilty about."
I argued that this outcome was inevitable, given a structural weakness of 'green and black anarchism':
"The idea of a class-based transformation of society is rejected – in some cases because of righteous disillusionment with traditional forms of class struggle, in many cases because the individual is from a relatively wealthy background. When such people see impending environmental catastrophe as the number one threat to their lives, their philosophy often becomes more anti-technological than anti-capitalist. Taking this perspective to its logical conclusion, capitalism and the state wouldn’t be much of a problem if they could somehow leave people alone in ecological peace, but since they can’t, both must be overcome. But with international class-based solidarity apparently ruled out, the result is that “setting an example” (as one woman put it) becomes the main method of ideological recruitment."
However, "setting an example" is difficult - if not impossible - when:
"Due to the built-in ideological structures of mainstream media and the state, the example set is of using those compost toilets, getting attacked by police, and putting yourself in mortal danger on your week off. Understandably, this is not an example that many are willing to follow."
I wholeheartedly agree with yesterday's statement that "In 2011 the climate science is as strong as ever – and the need for action on climate change never greater – but the political landscape is radically different." But if "setting an example" of green living is not working (never mind the fact that it's horribly patronising), and we discount the idea of competing capitalist states doing anything serious about climate change, the only option left is to completely reorganise society, and abolish the profit motive. On paper, the Climate Camp propaganda always acknowledged this, but in reality climate campers did little to put it into practice.

In 2008, a group called Workers' Climate Action held a session at the Kingsnorth camp, and many went to talk with Kingsnorth workers at their local pub. In summer 2009, Workers Climate Action supporters were instrumental in agitating for an occupation at the Vestas wind turbine factory on the Isle Of Wight, when it was threatened with closure.

The 2009 Vestas occupation gave hope to climate activists
The Vestas occupation failed in its aim of keeping the factory open. The reasons for this were many and varied. From the government's perspective, then Environment Minister Ed Miliband was determined to outsource to China, which was much cheaper and therefore more profitable. As for our side, the Vestas workers remained geographically and politically isolated, receiving insufficient practical solidarity from workers and activists around the country.

However, the occupation did demonstrate a couple of very important things. One: governments are only interested in 'green jobs' in so far as they are profitable. Two: the demand for a 'green economy' is therefore a revolutionary demand.

In 2011, let us be in no doubt: the only way to create a sustainable future for our species is to have a working class-led revolution. I'm delighted that many dedicated and talented climate activists have chosen to focus more of their energy on this cause, because the class struggle and the environmental struggle are one and the same.

Disqus for Infantile Disorder