Tuesday, April 26, 2011

US Struggles To Contain 'Arab Spring'

Arab dictators depend on the support of the US to stay in power
We're nearly into May, and the Arab uprisings which have shaken US imperialism since the start of the year show no sign of running out of steam. But why would they? Though they have generally taken the form of pro-democracy movements against tyranny, those taking part are pushed forward by their material needs for food, shelter and clothing. Needs which remain unfulfilled in every case.

In each country where the revolts are taking place, the Obama administration is trying to make the best of the situation - either strengthening its weak presence in some, or battling to save longtime allies in others. In doing so, Obama and Secretary of State Clinton are blatantly exposing the hypocrisy inherent in imperialism, by advocating contrasting 'principles' according to whether or not their man is in power. In the final analysis, the battle is over the control of resources, with the US seeking to control oil and gas supplies on one side, and working class citizens struggling to obtain a decent standard of living on the other. The two conditions are mutually exclusive, and this is understood by growing numbers of demonstrators.

Here's a brief update on the situation in each of the major conflict zones.

Since they ended the three decade reign of Hosni Mubarak in February, Egyptian workers have been discovering that they have no less an enemy in the 'interim' army administration. The army has its own commerical interests to protect, so it has repeatedly attacked protesters in the now highly symbolic Tahrir Square, forced through a repressive new constitution, and effectively banned strike action in the country. In this, it has the full support of the US, which has sent high profile representatives to Cairo, each promising military and financial aid for the junta. In the face of this, an illegal strike movement seems to be growing, as large numbers of workers fight for better pay and conditions.

Having forced the resignation of the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January - an event which inspired the oppressed in Egypt and around the Arab world - Tunisian demonstrators have forced many political concessions. Immediately after Ben Ali's departure, a 'caretaker' government was formed, including several key members of Ben Ali's own RDC party. Protests eventually forced their departure, the banning of the RDC, and the start of prosecutions against Ben Ali, his family, and former government ministers. The regime is now headed by eighty-four year old Beji Caid el Sebsi - a veteran of Tunisian bourgeois politics. Having abandoned Ben Ali once they sensed the game was up, the US is now watching developments keenly, and hoping that the political concessions won't encourage widespread industrial struggle.

Obama is trying to recast 'blood for oil' as humanitarian intervention in Libya
The US is leading a regime change military operation in the Libya, aimed at replacing recent ally and now once again 'mad dog' Muammar Gaddafi with a government that can better guarantee the flow of oil to the west, and particularly the US. The UK, France and Italy are pursuing their own imperial interests in the country, and there has been much in-fighting between the supposed 'allies' for the spoils of this war. The Libyan working class seems to be unrepresented in a ragtag 'rebel' army now led by a longterm CIA asset, and advised by US, UK and French military leaders. Frustrated by the lack of progress from the 'rebel' soliders, the US is now trying to assassinate Gaddafi. The pretext of a 'humanitarian mission' to enforce a 'no-fly zone' is now barely mentioned by the politicians or the corporate media.

After three months of brutally repressing protests against his government, US-backed dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh has now offered to resign, and hand the reins of power over to his deputy, Abd al-Rab Mansur al-Hadi, and a coalition comprised of various bourgeois opposition groups. The agreement was brokered by the Saudi-based Gulf Cooperation Council and the Obama administration, amid fears that Yemeni unrest might spread into neighbouring Saudi Arabia, which has the world's biggest oil reserves. Another consideration is that Yemen sits on the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, which is the waterway through which most Persian Gulf oil is shipped to the outside world. However, the deal was made conditional on the bourgeois opposition shutting down the protest movement, and this will be a difficult task, since protesters tend to see them as Saleh collaborators, and not leaders. Furthermore, the agreement highlights US hypocrisy, since a very similar one was roundly rejected in the case of Gaddafi in Libya.

In another country bordering Saudi Arabia, the Al Khalifa royal family is terrorising the population, with even hospitals now being "places to be feared", according to the Physicians for Human Rights group. Since the last open displays of working class defiance in February, more than a thousand people have been disappeared. In mi-March, Obama gave the green light for Saudi forces to be deployed in Bahrain, further underscoring the strategic importance of the immediate region for US imperialism. Unfortunately for him, material needs cannot simply by terrorised out of existance, and they will find further expression soon enough. 

Perhaps the most brutal repression in the Middle East at the moment is happening in Syria, where the regime is opposed by the US and Israel, as well as the broad masses within the country, although for altogether different reasons. President Bashar al-Assad is systematically ordering his troops to slaughter protesters, and then slaughter people who attend their funerals. The US has announced that it is considering sanctions against the Syrian government, and is clearly hoping to engineer the downfall of a regime with links to Iran, and which frequently makes use of anti-imperialist rhetoric. However, more strident opposition to Israel is a key demand of the Syrian protest movement, alongside the need for better living conditions and democratic reform.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The 1980 Bristol Riots

The police line in 1980
Following the anti-Tesco and anti-police rioting in Bristol on Friday, the libcom website has posted an article on the 1980 riots, in the St. Pauls area of the city. The piece was written in 2006 - arguably a historic low point in UK working class struggle. I repost it here, for comparison to this week's events:

1981 & All That

1981 seems a billion miles from 2006. In 25 years, from being the Wests' most explosive hotspot, Britain has become, with sporadic and marginal exceptions, a virtual no-go area for the class war. In 25 years the UK decayed from being a breath of fresh air, the class struggle expanding in unforeseen ways, sometimes evermore conscious of itself, to becoming a suffocatingly ever drier, narrower and unprecedentedly ultra-conservative ultra-mad place. A whole generation, schooled on largely uncontested alienations derived from the victory of Monetarism/Money Terrorism, has learnt only how to become as suicidal as capitalism in this world without exit. Almost everyone is forced to lead a normal life and are going loopy in having to try to pursue this normality.

In this totalitarian society that constantly re-writes history just as previous forms of totalitarianism have, the riots of 1981 are presented as "race riots", like the riots in Burnley, Oldham, Bradford and Leeds. Present history is re-written instantaneously of course. In lumping all the Northern riots in the spring of 2001 together, presenting all of them as race riots when not all of them were, the totalitarian liberal media hoped to incite in the white working class the very racism they pretended to lament. Since the Bradford and Leeds riots were mainly anti-cop riots, with a bit of window shopping thrown in, with more than a handful of whites joining in, they had to be crudely presented, complete with crocodile tears, as race riots in order to reinforce this divide, and to make all riots seem the same inexplicable expression of the nastiness of the human condition.

Likewise the media's mention of the memory of 1981 is only to claim they were race riots, when the biggest of these riots - in Toxteth, Liverpool - involved a lot more whites than blacks, like virtually all of the riots following Toxteth in July '81. For the benefit of this generation without history we present this corrective to official history - not out of nostalgia for the tragically sad virtual disappearance of these stumblingly struggling movements against normality but to see what there is in this history we can apply to our understanding of, and struggle against, the present. What we have lost is also what we must re-gain in the very different conditions of the here and now. Our roots are part of us and are part of the fertile means through which we extract the necessary nutrition for our future flowering. But in this sterile world we have to dig deep for them.

For the rest of Europe, many countries now face the kind of restructuring - Thatcherisation, or liberalisation as its now called - that was achieved in the UK 20 years ago. …..

So what happened back in them golden olden days?

"Bristol today - Brixton tomorrow!" - graffiti, Brixton, 1980

In April 1980, less than a year after Thatcher's coming to power, a mainly black area of Bristol, St.Paul's, rose up against the cops. This was just as the steelworkers strike against mass redundancies, the longest steelworkers strike since World War II, was fizzling out, a defeat for the strikers. 11 months after the start of Thatcher's Blitz, there came a little sparkle of hope - a firework to light up the night of demoralisation, a small taster of explosions to come.

St.Pauls at this time was an area of Bristol with less than a 50% black population, but which was a magnet for many Bristol blacks who didn't live there - a bit like Notting Hill. A red light district, it was where the street life was, the night and day life, the focus for black social life. In Grosvenor Road the Black and White Café, run by a black and white husband-and-wife team, was its centre. Created from the ground floor of a terraced house, it was the only mainly black café in the area which had not been forced out of business for contravening local authority health regulations or for other bureaucratic reasons. But it had had its licence to sell alcohol removed.

Between 1977 and 1980 unemployment among blacks in Bristol doubled (whereas it declined for whites). So there was a lot of street life during the day - no New Deal crap or computers keeping you stuck indoors, out of trouble. Equally there was no heroin or crack - Rastafarianism, for all its mysogeny and weird illusions in the dead Emperor ("Sieg Hailie!"), was absolutely opposed to heroin - and prevented any heroin dealers moving in at this time. It also had an o.k. ideology of sharing everything which often helped contribute to a friendly atmosphere.

On April 2nd, 39 cops armed with search warrants for drugs and illegal consumption of alcohol moved in, arresting the male owner, taking him away in handcuffs, protesting loudly, to be charged with possessing cannabis and allowing it to be smoked on his premises, whilst they emptied the café of its bottles of brandy, vodka and 132 crates of beer, loading them into a van in front of a growing and increasingly restless crowd outside. As the van with the alcohol left, a bottle was thrown. When the cops tore a man's trousers and the drugs squad made a run for their car with their booty, there was a shout, "Let's get the dope, let's get the drugs squad" and missiles were thrown at the cop car and at the cops. Under a hail of bricks, bottles and stones from the crowd of about 150 black and white youths on the grassy area opposite the café, the cops who were left took refuge in the café, radioing for help. Two hours after the raid had begun, reinforcements arrived, 100 cops assembling down one end of Grosvenor Road hoping to intimidate the crowd with a military-style show of strength - marching "left, right, left, right, like they were on parade. They had dogs with them. When they came in front of the café, we let them have it.", a black prostitute told the press.

Once the cops in the café had been rescued, there was a lull in the battle. But the State cannot allow no-go areas, so reinforcements had to be called in from outside the immediate area. A couple of cops on their own were attacked with flying objects, their cars turned over by about 12 black youths, one of the cars being set on fire. About 30 cops came under attack as a breakdown van came to take away the burnt-out vehicle. 50 - 60 cops with recently designed, and somewhat cumbersome, riot shields began to move towards about 200 missile throwers, but the bombardment was so intense, they had to move back, cops getting injured, cop cars overturned and set on fire and the crowd starting to loot. Lloyds Bank was attacked, broken into and set on fire. Firemen trying to quench the flames were also attacked. Cops trying to protect the bank were forced to withdraw under ferocious attack. Of the 50 - 60 cops on the scene, 22 had to go to hospital, 27 more had minor injuries, 21 cop cars were severely damaged and 6 were destroyed beyond repair. At the height of the battle there were at least 2000 rioters, a minority of whom were white. The cops decided to withdraw in order to collect reinforcements from neighbouring police forces around Bristol. But for over 3 hours the area was a no-go area for the State and there was massive looting, much of it by whites: about £150,000 worth of goods was nicked from the stores. Rioters were just about to set fire to the local Labour Exchange when a black former employee at the Labour Exchange warned them that if they torched the building they'd lose their weekly giro - a load of crap, of course: the State at this time was on the defensive, and would have been shit-scared of even a few day's delay in issuing giros…By 11p.m., over 7 hours after the raid had begun, the cops saturated the area and by midnight the State had re-asserted its authority. By no means had this been a race riot - the only whites attacked were the cops, and clearly whites, despite not suffering as much abuse and humiliation from the cops as blacks, had joined in the battle. A third of those arrested were white. One of the blacks who reduced the cause of the riot to racism - "What has to be faced up to is that Britain is deeply racialist" - was Francis Salandy, a Rasta, who'd been consulted about the cop raid 9 days before it happened. The all-embracing generalisation "Britain is deeply racialist" acts as a cover for the fact that he collaborated with the main enforcers of this racism - the State in the form of the police. But then that's the classic contradiction of all the anti-racist Middle Class, and would-be Middle Class.

16 of those arrested were charged with riotous assembly, carrying a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. The committal proceedings to decide whether there was a case to answer lasted 6 weeks and sometimes involved fighting breaking out in the courtroom between youths and cops. Some of the accused leapt from the dock to join in and there were clashes outside the court between about 100 demonstrators and the cops. Eventually 12 youths were put on trial, 11 of them black, 1 a prostitute mother of 4 kids (who was also charged with maliciously wounding a cop), 5 of them aged just 17. The trial eventually collapsed - with the jury giving 5 outright acquittals and deadlocked on the remaining 7. The failed trial cost half a million pounds - the same cost as riot damage. The ruling society hoped that this would be a one-off riot - and if it wasn't going to be, they'd make a few preparations. But they didn't realise how much the marginalised - especially the blacks - were beginning to grow in confidence.

It's indicative of how much mutual hatred there was between the cops and blacks that in mid-1980 100s of representatives of largely middle class black/Asian organisations, such as the inaptly named Indian Workers Association, called at a meeting in London for all blacks and Asians in Britain to withdraw co-operation from the police. There probably is still a mutual hatred amongst most blacks, but the middle class black organisations nowadays wouldn't for one split second even dream of breaking off relations with the cops.

On January 18th 1981 a fire in Deptford, South London, almost certainly deliberately started, gutted a family home during a party - 13 blacks died. The cops got heavy with black witnesses, forcing them to tell bullshit stories about a fight in the house. Though an "incendiary device" was found outside the house, the press and the cops reported it as an accident, then tried to ignore it. The blacks organised The Massacre Action Committee which in turn initiated a demonstration on March 2nd, a weekday, when 10,000 - mainly blacks - marched from Lewisham, across the Thames, along Fleet Street and into central London. Children skipped school to take part, and others had the day off work. As the march wove up Fleet Street windows were smashed and shops, including a jewellers, looted.

Just over a year after Bristol the predicted uprising in Brixton happened, but when history is made predictions turn out as insubstantial as a sexual fantasy: the real thing is something else.

In the few days up until Friday 10th April, Brixton had been the target of a saturation point cop stop and search plan called "Operation Swamp". Private Eye later called it "Operation Sambo-bashing". Every black guy, and some black women and marginal whites, was getting hassle.

On the Friday, a black guy, having been stabbed in some fight or other that nobody knew anything about, tried to avoid being helped by the cops - for the obvious reason that they would want to interview him later. The crowd of blacks misunderstood the situation a bit - one shouted "They're killing him" - and released him from the cops trying to tend his wounds in order to put him in a passing car to take him to hospital.

This fairly minor incident was the catalyst for two days of what up until then was the U.K.'s most explosive violently anti-State rioting of the 20th century.

(text incomplete)

Friday, April 22, 2011

Every Little Helps: An Eyewitness Account Of The Bristol Riot

"At around 10pm the shouting crowds blew up in size massively..."
Last night, police fought battles with a diverse group of demonstrators on the streets of Stokes Croft, Bristol. The following is an eyewitness account:

The First Riot Funky Night in Bristol

The anger was simmering for quite some time among the Stokes Croft community in Bristol. The people had to put up with a couple of heavy-handed police evictions recently and the hated Tesco store was finally opened a week ago, despite a massive but peaceful campaign. The area is famous for its grafitti and night life now, attracting gentrification and yuppies moving in. Interestingly, the anti-Tesco sentiment became something like a broad resistance platform, uniting the remaining working class people, middle class bohemians and the student population.

The riot kicked off when the police at around 9.30pm tried to evict a squat known as Telepathic Heights, just across the road from the new Tesco Express. They claimed they were searching for petrol bombs, part of an anti-Tesco conspiracy. There were around 10 police vans with the signs HEDDLU (yes, like in the riots in the 80s, they brought in Welsh cops to smash Bristolian heads).

At around 10pm the shouting crowds blew up in size massively, as hundreds of new people turned up, navigated by the police helicopter, hovering unusually low above the Stokes Croft. The cops needed to break through from this kind of kettle and charged in. They were met by a rain of stones, bottles and the first barricade made of bins. They managed to push people back in two directions, into the narrow Picton Street and to Ashley Road, leading right into the middle of the St. Pauls area. The crowd in Picton street was smaller, mainly cafe type of people, and pacifist. The scuffles were more like a street party, just pushing back and forth, no batons, someone playing Michael Jackson's 'Beat It!' from their house, people enjoying the fun and protest. The cops eventually retreated themselves and so I moved on to Ashley Road. When I got there, the street battle moved deeper into St. Pauls and it was clear that this is gonna be a whole night party. Two lines of barricades and bins set on fire on Brigstocke road leading down to City Road, the epicentre of the famous St. Pauls riots in the 80s. Hundreds of people, very determined and more experienced, joined in by new contingents of the local black youth. Many locals got out from their houses, some with support and some shouting "get lost from my street, who the fuck will clean this mess?!". I spoke to some people who remembered the riots in the 80s and they were up for it. One older woman skeptically said that the area has been gentrified and the new posh population will never join this.

There is a lot of Tweeting going on about smashing Tesco as the highlight of the night. I don't think it was. There were not many people around when it got the first trash and a police car parked by was set on fire (around 2.30am?). The core of the riot at that moment was at the junction of Ashley  Road and Stokes Croft, when people were throwing staff from the Ninetree Hill down on the vans, trying to join the rest of us. When, on my way home, I spoke to a bunch of local black kids and asked '"Have you heard that the new Tesco got smashed?", they looked at me with confusion and asked "No, and this bad isn't it?". My impression is that people joined the riot for different reasons: the harrassment of squatters, ethical/political issue with Tesco, the commodification of Stokes Croft, the anti-cuts sentiment. And the black disobedients from St. Pauls have probably their own accounts they need to settle with police.

Interestingly, after the last order hour the bohemian studenty arty elements became much more confident and angry with the continuing blockade of their favourite night life 'avenue'. After Tesco got the first smash, the cops were hitting us much harder, but they had to face a new crowd that recomposed during the night; all the distinct elements, all the different motivations I mentioned earlier just merged together into one whole and this, for me, was the best outcome of the first riot night in Bristol. Just watch this video and listen to the trumpet, that says it all.

Oleg Resin

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Locked Out Vivergo Workers Continue Their Fight For Jobs

Construction workers face state repression, as well as oppostion from union tops
Last week I reported that construction workers at a biofuels plant near Hull were facing opposition from their ultimate employers, the police, and trade union tops as they fought for their jobs and employment rights. Yesterday morning it was announced that the Vivergo oil company had agreed a £1.2 million compensation package with the sub-contractors, Redhall. The deal - which would have amounted to nearly £3,250 for each of three hundred and seventy workers - was decisively rejected by a mass meeting later in the day, against the advice of Unite bureaucrats.

The workers were made redundant at the start of March, following a one day blockade of the plant over an infringement of the 'last in, first out' industry standards. Vivergo claimed the project was behind schedule, but the obvious militancy of the workforce was likely a very significant factor in their decision. The workers have been 'locked out' ever since, but have waged a campaign of direct action over and above the official lobbying promoted by the unions. They stormed the construction site, held a sit-in and even blocked traffic, creating major disruption in the Hull area.

The direct action came to a temporary halt on the 12th of this month, when police began a crackdown on demonstrators, carried-out two arrests, and tried to enforce the Public Order Act - which can be used to limit the length and size of protests. Instead of raising the alarm about the anti-democratic police action, union leaders sought to suspend the action whilst talks were held with Vivergo - i.e. at precisely the time when they would have made most impact. At the time, a majority of the workers were convinced by a Unite full-time official's arguments, and direct action was halted. Concerns about the potential dismissal of repair and maintenance workers who'd taken solidarity action had also been floated.

However, yesterday's rejection of Vivergo's offer marks a decisive break with the union bureaucracy. Though Les Dobbs of GMB had argued against acceptance, Unite official Bernard McAuley recommended the deal. Furthermore, despite Dobbs' stand, the national GMB leadership will do all it can to demobilise the struggle. The offer of £1.2 million was won through direct action, and despite the union tops, not because of them.

The locked-out workers must now act entirely independently of the union leadership, and organise their own action on a democratic basis. If Vivergo win this one, it will undermine construction industry regulations, and set a standard for companies sacking a militant workforce en masse. If Vivergo is to be beaten, the fight needs to be extended far beyond the Hull area, and indeed far beyond the construction sector, into the broader working class.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

'Alternative Vote' Referendum Fails To Grip Nation

Absurd 'no' propaganda from Clegg's coalition partners
With just over a fortnight to go before the referendum on the 'Alternative Vote' system for UK parliamentary elections, only about half of the population say they are 'certain' to express a preference. A low turnout seems inevitable, reflecting widespread disengagement from Westminster politics, and the 'choice' between three near-identical ruling class parties.

On Monday, spoof website News Thump published an article under the headline 'We're struggling to find a 1st choice, let alone a 2nd or 3rd, voters tell AV campaigners'. Like all good satire, this had a large element of truth to it. The political class is widely despised and distrusted - and rightly so. While the Conservatives have long held a reputation as a party of the rich, Labour thoroughly earned such a description under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, while the Lib Dems - long seen as a perpetual 'protest vote' during their opposition - are showing themselves to be loyal servants of the elite in their position of power.

So not many people care either way whether their dictators are elected via the traditional 'first past the post' system, or this new 'alternative vote' system. However, for followers of the Westminster soap opera, the referendum campaign is of some interest. It is the first major issue on which the coalition partners have expressed any significant differences, as was provided for in last May's coalition agreement. The Conservatives oppose Alternative Vote, whilst the Lib Dems wholeheartedly support it. For Labour, leader Ed Miliband is an enthusiastic advocate of AV, though the party in general seems divided.

The dispute is not one of lofty principle. Instead, it should be seen as politicians pursuing narrow self-interest - exactly the sort of behaviour that has made them so unpopular over the last decade in particular. The Lib Dems support AV because it would normally mean there were more Lib Dem MPs (both Labour and Conservative voters traditionally see Lib Dems as second best). The Conservatives fear a so-called 'progressive' coalition between Labour and AV-bolstered Lib Dems, and indeed this would almost certainly have happened if the system had been in place for the last election. Labour backed electoral reform before 1997, when Blair won a landslide majority and did not need Lib Dem support. They have been cool on it since then, and the current divisions within Labour can be attributed to trying to work out a route back to power in 2015.

Indeed, the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition has shaken the debate on voting reform, making some of the old arguments pro and con seem ridiculous. One 'No to AV' (i.e. Conservative) line of attack is that it could lead to the party in third place becoming kingmaker on a regular basis. An advert shows Labour, Tory and Lib Dem horses racing, with the third place Lib Dem being declared winner. But this sounds hollow because it's more or less what happened in 2010, when Nick Clegg's party decided to help the Conservatives into power. The coalition maintains this was a good thing for this parliament, but the Conservatives are implying it would be bad if it happened in the future! Naturally, this is because they believe Labour would be the beneficiaries.

'No' currently holds a 16-point lead according to an ICM poll, but a mass abstention on 5th May will be a giant vote of no-confidence in the political class. The task remains to build a true alternative, and real democracy, living and breathing in workplaces and neighbourhoods rather than cloistered away behind police lines in Westminster. This is an indispensible part of the class struggle.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Vivergo Workers Confront Employers, Police and GMB Union

Saltend workers blocking traffic in response to management's refusal to negotiate
Construction workers at a biofuels plant near Hull face opposition from the contractors, the police, and now the GMB union after being locked out for more than a month.

The constructors had been working on a new refinery in Saltend, East Yorkshire, which had been commissioned by Vivergo Fuels Ltd. A dispute in early March saw workers blockading the entrance to the plant, after fifteen redundancies were announced, amid allegations that their sub-contractor, Redhall Engineering Solutions Ltd, had breached 'first in, last out' industry-wide agreements. They returned to work after one day, following negotiations between the GMB and Redhall.

Just over a week later, Vivergo cancelled their contract with Redhall, claiming that the company had fallen significantly behind on the project. However, it is reasonable to assume that Vivergo decided they wanted to be rid of an obviously militant workforce. The Redhall workers have been locked out since then, and are receiving no wages, though the GMB has set up a hardship fund.

But the construction workers have refused to take the company's treatment lying down, and have mounted an assertive campaign to claim their transfer of employment rights. Hundreds marched to Hull on the 28th March. The GMB organised daily protests at the plant, until 10th April, when Vivergo refused to meet union representative in talks mediated by the 'conciliation service' ACAS. On 11th April, the workers stormed the site, shutting it down, and started blockading a roundabout, creating a tailback stretching to Hull city centre. The GMB planned a rally at the BP AGM in London on 14th (BP owns a large share in Vivergo). However, they suspended protests on-site after the police began a crackdown on the protests on the 12th, when more than sixty cops descended on the plant to enforce the Public Order Act - limiting the numbers who can protest at any one time. Two arrests were made.

The next step for the Saltend demonstrators remains unclear, but as ever, the unions are showing themselves to be complicit in attacks on working conditions. Instead of raising the alarm at the anti-democratic actions of the police, they cowered before them. As soon as the going gets tough, the union tops scramble to make a deal with business leaders, or their state enforcers in uniform.

If the Saltend workers are to have any chance of reinstatement, they must organise independently of the GMB union, on a rank-and-file basis. They must also reach out to colleagues in the construction industry, and throughout the wider working class, where they would find greater allies than amongst the well-heeled bureaucrats who run 'their' union.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Cameron's Turn To 'Divide and Conquer' Politics

Two shifty looking characters crossing the UK border, probably up to no good
David Cameron's latest speech on non-EU immigration was best summarised in a satirical Tweet by comedian James Cook: "You know who I blame for the country's problems? The people in our society with the least amount of power or wealth." It is a transparent bid to distract from the unpopularity of the government's policies and canvas for right wing support in the coming local elections. But even more importantly than that, it is a resurrection of the age old 'divide and conquer' politics, aimed at undermining the working class as a whole.

Large sections of the elite will back Cameron's proposed 'immigration cap' (which would apply only to working class people). From the perpective of the ruling class, it makes a kind of utilitarian sense. Traditionally, in times of low unemployment, migrant labourers have been accepted by governments of the richest countries, since they represent extra bodies for exploitation, and exert downward pressure on wages. In times of economic stagnation - i.e. when it is unprofitable for capitalists to 'create' jobs - a surplus of migrants can be a drain on profitability, and wage claims are already partially kept down by workers' fear of unemployment.

However, other sections of the bourgeoisie disagree with such caps, and for the moment they are represented in government by Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable. Even before Cameron made his speech, the former economist was describing the Prime Minister's comments as "very unwise". For Cable and other Lib Dems, the exploitation of migrant labour "is crucial to British recovery and growth", so they hope to "support British business" by "exempting overseas students and essential staff from the cap on non-EU immigration".

For the Tories and the Lib Dems, this is a very convenient dividing line in the run-up to local elections, after a year in which they have been politically joined at the hip. No doubt it will help both coalition partners scrape a few more votes, which they can then present as public acceptance of their savage cuts agenda. For their part, Labour will struggle to make much of this disagreement, because they were just as prone to rolling out populist racism to get votes.

Of course, New Labour's embrace of racism occurred at a time of relative industrial peace. Cameron's diatribes must be seen in a very different context. Broad swathes of the population are struggling to make ends meet, and very much worse is yet to come, as the coalition's cuts take hold. A majority of UK voters are opposed to Cameron and Clegg's bloody war for oil in Libya, and the government is facing mutiny from health workers over Andrew Lansley's NHS 'reforms'. By changing the agenda to the 'problem' of immigration, Cameron will hope to gain some breathing space.

But it is the 'divide and conquer' aspect of Cameron's speech that is most significant. In times of scarce resources, people are compelled to fight for their share, and it is precisely a united working class that Cameron, Clegg, and the bankers behind them most fear. By resurrecting hoary old tabloid chestnuts like immigrants not learning English (whilst the government is slashing English for Speakers of Other Languages tuition), Cameron is in effect pointing at all non-white people in the UK and screaming "It's not us, it's them".

The PM's speech is of a piece with his recent remarks on multiculturalism, and indeed Tory 'intellectual' David Willetts' comments about how feminism had harmed male career chances. It's all about shifting blame from the powerful to the powerless. But hatred of the powerful has never been stronger in modern times, so all these provocations actually reveal the government's weakness, and not their strength.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Resignation of Chris Bambery and the Bankruptcy of the 'Left'

Bambery played - and lost - the SWP factions game
Chris Bambery's letter of resignation from both the Socialist Workers Party central committee and the party itself is a condemnation of the factionalism and opportunism at the heart of the UK's leading 'left' group. But more than that, it shows up the bankruptcy of the reformist, pseudo-Trotskyist 'left' as a whole.

As he states in the letter, Bambery had been an SWP member for thirty-two years, since leaving the International Marxist Group. A very significant figure within the party, he'd served as a key organiser in Scotland, and editor of the flagship Socialist Worker paper from 2004 until recently. His departure leaves the cash-strapped SWP in chaos, following the recent exits of former central committee members John Rees and Lindsey German, and the 2009 death of Chris Harman. Of the 'big names' associated with the party, only Alex Callinicos now remains.

Bambery's letter describes factional battles which have "afflicted" the party for years, and "grip the leading group". According to Bambery, he was accused of playing "a 'filthy' and 'disgraceful' role in the party". In response to these "slanders", Bambery tendered his resignation.

The SWP is led by its central committee, which decides the policy direction for the party as a whole. In this respect, it is modelled on the theories of Vladimir Lenin, who emphasised the supposed need for such 'democratic centralism' in his 1902 pamphlet What Is To Be Done? Like Lenin, the party argues that this structure allows for rank-and-file concerns to be reflected in the decision-making body. However, since the leadership is elected rather than delegated, and not subject to recall, they are actually insulated from the membership, and the structure is hardly more democratic than that of the Labour Party.

The promotion of pet projects inevitably leads to central committee infighting, but so too does the entirely opportunistic character of the SWP. Instead of starting from core Marxist principles, it seeks to recruit members and Socialist Worker subscribers at any cost to its supposed 'socialism'. The party promotes its front groups as a way of vampirically sucking in members, and channelling their dissent into safe, controllable directions. Bambery's letter mentions Right To Work and Stop The War, but there have been countless others down the years, including the Respect Party and Globalise Resistance. Despite his protestations, Bambery plays this game too. Indeed last October he tried to get anarchists arrested when they turned up at 'his' Right To Work demo with a banner he didn't like.

Furthermore, despite its adoption of Lenin's dictatorial power structure and occasional references to revolution, the SWP is essentially a reformist party, tied to the union bureaucracy in innumerable ways, and refusing to seriously criticise union tops, whilst promoting illusions in the Labour Party at election time. But in this it is no different to the ex-Militant Socialist Party or the Alliance for Workers' Liberty - the other main 'Trotskyist' parties in the UK.

In the face of the ruling class cuts agenda, it is necessary for working people to form their own rank-and-file controlled organisations. Of course, factions would still exist within such organisations, but they'd be based on tactics rather than narrow individual interests. What's more - at a time when the financial aristocrats are refusing to give an inch - they would be inherently revolutionary.

Friday, April 08, 2011

The Great (Clinical) Depression

Money worries are a social problem, and can't be cured by pills
The award for least surprising story of the week must go to the 'revelation' that the UK has seen a huge increase in anti-depressant use between 2006 and 2010. This was accompanied by 'speculation' that this might have something to do with the economic crisis. That might seem obvious, but it represents a tacit admission that many mental conditions are largely socially constructed, something that flies in the face of the traditional ruling class approach to psychological distress.

According to NHS Prescription Services data, the number of prescriptions for Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, the most common anti-depressant drugs, rose by 43% over the period. GPs admitted they were increasingly being contacted by people with money worries - a social problem - and were responding with prescriptions for mind-altering drugs.

Emer O'Neill of Depression Alliance UK commented that "The financial strain on many people has never been worse. They are worried about their spiralling bills and where the next meal is coming from. It can make you feel very down, and it soon becomes a cycle." For the government, Care Services Minister Paul Burstow announced that funding for 'talking therapies' will be increased by £400 million over the next four years.

As someone who was clinically depressed in my teens and early twenties, I believe that talking to a stranger about your problems can be beneficial. However, talking does not make those problems - which are generally rooted in the state of society itself - go away. At best, it can help someone sort through their own thinking. With all avenues of improving society supposedly closed, capitalism responds with the medicalisation of the social - the social problem becomes the 'mental illness'.

Scientists speculate that the 'illness' known as depression is actually a very healthy evolutionary adaptation, allowing the individual to withdraw for a while, and weigh up their options. The problem for many at this time in humanity's history is that there don't appear to be any options. The necessary rebirth of the working class movement will bring hope to millions, whether they are labelled depressive or not.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

The Black Bloc and 'Propaganda By The Deed'

Smashing, but is it educational or inspiring?
The intra-anarchist debate over the black bloc in the wake of the March 26th London demonstrations is the latest stage in a debate that has characterised anarchism - and indeed the radical left in general - since the mid 1800s. One hundred and fifty years on, the controvery is still raging. Where this disagreement has been comradely, it has shown a great strength of anarchism - the belief that a wide variety of tactics can be used to confront the enemy.

When the French anarchist Paul Brousse first coined the term 'propaganda by the deed' in 1877, he was referring to the Paris Commune - where workers took over the running of the French capital - and other mass uprisings. But very quickly, the phrase was being used to encompass individual acts of what the ruling class would describe as vandalism, terrorism, and even murder.

The insurrectionist Johann Most, who was an early influence on Emma Goldman, advocated a strategy whereby convinced revolutionists would substitute themselves for the working class in acts of violence against state and capitalist targets. He believed that this violence would instantly stir the collective power of the working class into action.

There are echoes of this stance in the statement published in The Guardian last week, where the self-identified black bloc activists proclaimed that "Only actions count now", and that they were giving "uncompromising opposition to capitalism an appropriate image on the streets". The idea is apparently that smashing a bank window is symbollicaly the same as 'smashing' the power of the banks. But then, how can the great mass of people learn to literally 'smash' the power of the banks, except through their own struggle?

Goldman and Berkman's tactical opinions shifted over time
Emma Goldman's position on propaganda by the deed shifted in the years after her lifelong companion, Alexander Berkman, unsuccessfully tried to kill Henry Frick, the boss of Carnegie Steel. Berkman had dreamed that following the shooting, "labor would realize the significance of my deed", and would "be roused to strong protest, perhaps to active demand." Unfortunately for him and for us, that was not the case. Berkman and Goldman could only watch in despair as the expected uprising failed to materialise, and Berkman was "buried alive" in prison for sixteen years.

A decade later, when the anarchist Leon Czolgosz killed US President William McKinley, Berkman argued:
"Now, I do not believe that this deed was terroristic; and I doubt whether it was educational, because the social necessity for its performance was not manifest. That you may not misunderstand, I repeat: as an expression of personal revolt it was inevitable, and in itself an indictment of existing conditions. But the background of social necessity was lacking, and therefore the value of the act was to a great extent nullified."
It is worth applying Berkman's quote to the context of the 'violence' against symbols of wealth in London last month. With class tensions at incendiary levels, it could certainly be argued that the "social necessity for its performance" was indeed very clear to large numbers of people in the general public, even despite the mass media's attempts at demonisation. But was it "educational"? My answer has to be a no. It did not teach anyone anything, because it did not take back any products of working class labour. In that way it differed from the fleeting occupation of Tory HQ last year, and does not represent a way forward in the class struggle, even if it were to be taken up on a massive scale. Neither was it an act of genuine resistance. Instead, it polarised opinion along already existing lines.

That said, just because I wouldn't do it myself, I certainly wouldn't want to condemn it either. In fact, based on my own experience, I believe Goldman's position on Czolgosz also holds true here:
"It is, therefore, not cruelty, or a thirst for blood, or any other criminal tendency, that induces such a man to strike a blow at organized power. On the contrary, it is mostly because of a strong social instinct, because of an abundance of love and an overflow of sympathy with the pain and sorrow around us, a love which seeks refuge in the embrace of mankind, a love so strong that it shrinks before no consequence, a love so broad that it can never be wrapped up in one object, as long as thousands perish, a love so all-absorbing that it can neither calculate, reason, investigate, but only dare at all costs."
The smashed bank windows were a result of the TUC leadership's predictably traitorous embrace of the Labour 'opposition', and mildly critical partnership with those determined to push working class living standards back to the levels of the 1930s. When largescale grassroots struggle does emerge, the 'need' for acts of destruction as adverts for anarchism will disappear. In the meantime, it is the union bureaucrats who are the true enemies within.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Selfishness and Solidarity

Dawkins' liberal constraints were a gift to the right
You are selfish. Well, not 'you' exactly. Your genes are selfish, and programmed to pursue self-replication. But since the 'you' that's reading this is a colony of those genes, the effect is the same. With this in mind, how could I possibly argue for a society based on solidarity and co-operation within the pages of this blog? Well, looking at the way the world is going at the moment, how could I not?
Let me explain what I mean. The idea of selfish genes was of course popularised by Richard Dawkins' book of the same name. In a nutshell, Dawkins put forward the thesis that: "We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes." Behaviour normally considered 'altruistic' - and praised by the moralists and liberals - is more likely to make you die before passing on your genes, or make your children grow up materially poorer. On the other hand behaviour labelled 'selfish' is generally likely to benefit your chances of bringing up children in material abundance.' So evolution strongly favours selfishness.

The Selfish Gene was first published in 1976, at a time when Callaghan in the UK and Carter in the US were decisively turning from 'progressive' reformism, and ushering in the neoliberal era of Thatcher and Reagan. In a forward to a later edition, Dawkins regretted how neoliberal ideologues had seized on the idea of selfish genes, using it to bring 'social Darwinism' back into political discourse.

Sadly, Dawkins was hampered by his own personal liberalism, and so did not follow his own theory through to its logical Marxist conclusion - that the only way the immense majority can safeguard their interests is to act together for the overthrow of capitalism. This failing had indeed done some of the right wing's work for them. These limitations are clearly expressed in chapter one:
"Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have a chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do."
But then, in a society based on material scarcity, how can you condemn anyone for protecting their genetic interests? From a rational perspective, Ebenezer Scrooge was a fool to help out Bob Cratchit and his family in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. After all, how did it benefit Scrooge? It's not as if Cratchit had gone on strike, or taken direct action against his exploitative employer. Quite the opposite; Dickens makes a virtue of Crachit's meekness. True, Scrooge had been troubled by pangs of guilt, which manifested in the visit of the three 'ghosts'. But guilt is just an evolutionary throwback from our time in primitive communist society, where individualistic behaviour would hurt people who were closely related to us. No doubt Scrooge & Marleys went out of business before many more Christmases had come and gone. So much for 'survival of the fittest' amongst capitalists.

Strength in numbers makes genetic sense
Communists have a vision of a society where individual needs perfectly overlap, where scarcity has been conquered, and "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs" is the basis of all 'economic' practice. A society in which, as Oscar Wilde described, "Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody."

As ever, the question is 'how do we get there?' And sad to say, on the way, militant workers will have to deal with the problem of scabs. Without realising it, Dawkins had much to say on the subject of strikebreaking:
"If only everybody would agree to be a dove, every single individual would benefit. By simple group selection, any group in which all individuals mutually agree to be doves would be far more successful than a rival group sitting at the ESS (Evolutionary Stable Strategy) ratio.... Group selection theory would therefore predict a tendency to evolve towards an all-dove conspiracy... But the trouble with conspiracies, even those that are to everybody's advantage in the long run, is that they are open to abuse. It is true that everybody does better in an all-dove group than he would in an ESS group. But unfortunately, in conspiracies of doves, a single hawk does so extremely well that nothing could stop the evolution of hawks. The conspiracy is therefore bound to be broken by treachery from within. An ESS is stable, not because it is particularly good for the individuals participating in it, but simply because it is immune to treachery from within."
In other words, scabs break strikes because the material reward for doing so (i.e. strikebreaking pay) seems to outweigh the benefits of solidarity. The task facing militant workers is persuading would-be scabs - either verbally or by other means - that their material interests are best served on their side of the picket line, because they cannot seriously be blamed for trying to be selfish.

Selfishness is not the problem we confront in the ruins of this economic crisis. It's our own current lack of collective selfishness in the face of organised ruling class selfishness. We need to advance our collective interests, which is the only way to stop being the kind of subservient 'philanthropists' that Robert Tressell spoke of. In the real world, the meek Bob Cratchits will inherit nothing.

Friday, April 01, 2011

A Debate On The NATO Intervention In Libya

As NATO began its military intervention in Libya on the side of the "rebel" anti-Gaddafi forces, there was much debate on The Commune's mailing list about how communists should react. My own contribution was as follows:

"To be a communist is to take the side of the working class, and the working class only. Not one faction or other of the ruling class, in the (mistaken, in my view) belief that they would treat working class people better. Therefore we must oppose imperialist intervention in all its forms, including the policing of a ‘no-fly zone’ against the Gaddafi regime. (Even the no-fly thing is now clearly a figleaf, after the bombing of the Gaddafi compound and other targets – they want regime change).

‘The rebels’ are not a homogenous block. As always, there are class divisions. Many of the self-appointed ‘Transitional’ leaders are ex-Gaddafi generals, who saw that they were losing a few weeks ago, or saw an opportunity to step out from Gaddafi’s shadow, and went over to the other side. They are the ones providing most of the equipment being used to fight Gaddafi’s forces, and they will demand positions of power over the working class should they be victorious. The democratic (and behind them, material) aspirations of the working class will not be met by holdovers from the Gaddafi regime, any more than they will be met by holdovers from the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes in Tunisia and Egypt respectively.

It is western imperialism that creates the power of Middle Eastern dictators, and it is only the power of the international working class that can overthrow them. Mubarak fell precisely at the point when a strike wave went through Egypt, and the same appears to be happening in Bahrain. This is where the power of working class people lies – not begging arms from this or another general for an insurrection, or begging support from imperialists."

You can read a representative sample of the comments here. The debate took place between the 20th and 25th March.

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