Friday, September 30, 2011

BNP day of action drowned out by local opposition

This afternoon I'm recommending you read Phil Dickens' report on yesterday's BNP demo in Liverpool, and the various strategies anti-fascists adopted in response. Without ever sinking to the level of mudslinging, it analyses the concrete effects "on the ground" - to borrow that phrase from TV war coverage. For me, it perfectly illustrates why Liverpool Antifascists' approach to their politics is the correct one, and I would love to see their example copied by others facing the far right.

Today was the BNP's much-vaunted day of action against the BBC and Question Time. As part of their "Operation Fightback" to challenge "corruption and prejudice" against them, they would descend on the show being recorded in Liverpool and make their voice heard. Unfortunately for them, it didn't quite work out that way.

I arrived at the counter demonstration just after 5pm, having heard that about 50 BNP members had already been in town handing out leaflets. However, I hoped, there had been enough publicity about the counter-protest to guarantee a sizeable opposition to their presence and thus no chance that they would be able to air their views without objection or challenge. One of the local UAF organisers had also told me that they had been publicising it heavily and, whilst I have issues with UAF's politics, I had no reason to doubt this particular person's word or their commitment on this.

Click here for the rest of the article.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Alessio Rastani - The Face of Unacceptable Capitalism

Smiley Alessio Rastani is the product of a sick social system
Alessio Rastani's appearance on BBC News sparked a virtual internet firestorm yesterday. Ultimately, this was because he dared to cut through the bullshit and speak honestly about the parasitical relationship between the 'financial sector' and the working class.

Questioned about the likely effect of the latest attempt to kick the can down the road and forestall enconomic depression, the Rastani was frankness itself, claiming that "the market is toast", and that he "go[es] to bed every night and I dream of another recession, I dream of another moment like this."

Rastani added that "The savings of millions of people are going to vanish," and that viewers should "get prepared" because the "economic crisis is like a cancer, if you just wait and wait thinking this will go away, just like a cancer it's going to grow and it's going to be too late."

In perhaps the most unintentionally stinging inditement of the current order, Rastani proclaimed that: "The governments don't rule the world, Goldman Sachs rules the world." In other words, forget your ideas about liberal democracy, there is a ferocious class war going on, and the financial aristocrats are calling the shots.

Many were stunned. "Jaws were collectively dropped" in the studio, according to reporter Martine Croxall, perhaps staggered that a moment of unvarnished truth had passed in the news room. Twitter went wild, especially with speculation that anti-corporate stunt act The Yes Men were behind it, just as they were the were behind a fake apology over the Bhopal disaster. As Phillip Pilkington on the Naked Capitalism blog put it:
"Some are shocked at the amoralism of it all. Some have their heads buried so deep in the sand that they try to convince themselves that Rastani is just a prankster. Which group is worse? One has to wonder. The former are fools, blind to the world in which we live and the considerable economic problems that haute finance has caused us in the past two decades. But the latter are arguably more loathsome; they’ve turned a very important statement on where we are today into another bit of fun to fill their time on Twitter."
Pilkington's language is more than a little harsh, but there are some realities we must face up to with sober senses: the financial aristocrats will do anything to make money, including bankrupting or near-bankrupting whole economies (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain etc), and when they tell the politicians to jump, the only question they get in response is 'how high?' As Marx warned the working class in The Communist Manifesto: "The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie." Since then - as was inevitable - it has been the financial bourgeoisie that has gained exclusive sway over all global economics and politics.

Rastani is real, and as for Goldman Sachs, one look at its grip on the Obama adminstration should dispel any doubts over its influence. So what are we going to do about it?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Sparks Continue Battle Against Employers and "Union Fat Cats"

It's now a week since Unite construction officer Bernard McAulay slammed the "cancerous" Sparks rank-and-file movement, but the furious electricians show no signs of giving up their independent fightback against wage cuts of up to 35%. Over the weekend, it was announced that MJN Colston have apparently given way without a fight. But the Sparks still face a reckoning with seven more employers, plus the dead weight of their own union bosses.

As the Cautiously Pessimistic blog stated:
"This is bigger than just the wages and conditions of one group of workers: the fundamental question here is whether or not it’s possible for a group of ordinary people to assert some kind of control over what’s going on in their lives. A victory for the electricians would be a victory for all of us who share that goal."
Here's shop steward Kenny Ward's report of a Sparks meeting in Newcastle last night, posted on the Sparks Against de-skilling and 35% Pay Cuts Facebook group:
Greetings Brothers and Sisters. Just a quick report back to say that myself, other offshore stewards and offshore members made the long journey from the Lindsey protest yesterday to the Unite rank and file meeting in Newcastle Labour club that was conducted by our brother Jimmy Warne last night. The venue was packed with furious Sparks who where able to vent their spleen on the two Unite full time officers who where in attendance.

The message from the Union fat cats was made crystal clear that after legal consideration and advice was taken from counsel your up "Shit creak without a paddle" and basically your on" your own Jack . Of course the anti trade union laws that the labour govrernment promised to repeel are being used to defend the employers actions, but hey;..we forgot about that old chestnut was the sentiment of the Unite officials. The officials took a severe verbal onslaught from the angry membership at at one point where asked to leave the room so as to regain focus on the matters in hand. After all, thay would be charged by the employers legal representatives with duplicity should they here remain in the company of the membership who where planning illegal actions toward the employers.

So here we where, organising and planning a rank and file dispute to oppose the very same laws that give the employers the right to slash jobs, terms and conditions by using the law that our own labour government failed to snuff out as promised in their manifesto for election. Ironic isnt it that whilst we marched together in solidarity with our Brothers and Sisters at Lindsey Oil, the officials where scurrying aroud in periphory trying to avoid the gaze of the protesters that they made a feeble and amature attempt to represent. After this taste of appointed union officialdom we go to Newcastle to see before us the bloated carcasses of the the union officials who have got fat off there expenses, give another amature and sole destorying performance trying to apeese the baying membership.

So a decision was made by the members to elect Jimmy Warne as Chairman of the rank and file committee and from that point a election of a protest committee was duly put into place. So it is from this point that direction and Instruction will announce for this campaign to have a structure and ultamitley beat this threat that is upon us all.

Myself and our Brothers offshore will be keeping a breast of the struggle and will be giving the support that you will need to be victorious.

Strength in Solidarity

Kenny Ward
Unite Senior Shop Steward
Offshore (North Sea)

Friday, September 23, 2011

One Heck Of A Week On Wall Street

A symbolic representation of the capitalist state
In journalist-speak, 'Wall Street' means the New York Stock Exchange, as in the sentence "Wall Street struggles as global stock rout continues". Of course, even if the stocks do fall a few percentage points in one day - as they have done this week - the street itself normally remains unshaken. I say 'normally', because things have been quite different for the past seven days - as police have been defending it from protesters against the iron grip of financial aristocracy. But while the number of demonstrators physically there appears to be dwindling - a possibly conservative BBC estimate is just fifty - it has won supporters in the hundreds of thousands online. Below I repost a portrait of the 'movement' by Nathan Schneider of left liberal American website Truthout. It's clear that this is not the revolution - it has insufficient roots in workplace and community struggles. But perhaps the national and international web-based phenomenon is a harbinger of explosive class conflict. Meanwhile, Wall Street suits have reacted with stupidity and 'let them eat cake' arrogance.

A lot of what you've probably seen or read about the #occupywallstreet action is wrong, especially if you're getting it on the Internet. The action started as an idea posted online and word about it then spread and is still spreading, online. But what makes it really matter now is precisely that it is happening offline, in a physical, public space, live and in person. That's where the occupiers are assembling the rudiments of a movement.
At the center of occupied Liberty Plaza, a dozen or so huddle around computers in the media area, managing a makeshift Internet hotspot, a humming generator and the (theoretically) 24-hour livestream. They can edit and post videos of arrests in no time flat, then bombard Twitter until they're viral. But for those looking to understand even the basic facts about what is actually going on - before September 17 and since - the Internet has been as much a source of confusion as it is anything else.

For someone who has been following this movement in gestation as well as implementation, it's painfully easy to see which news articles take their bearing entirely from a few Google searches. Some reporters come to Liberty Plaza looking for Adbusters staff, or US Day of Rage members, or conspiratorial Obama supporters, or hackers from Anonymous. They're briefly disappointed to find none of the above. Instead, it's a bunch of people - from round-the-clock revolutionaries, to curious tourists, to retirees, to zealous students - spending most of their time in long meetings about supplying food, conducting marches, dividing up the plaza's limited space and what exactly they're there to do and why. And that's the point. More than demanding any particular policy proposal, the occupation is reminding Wall Street what real democracy looks like: a discussion among people, not a contest of money.

Some fashion advice for banksters?
As is now well known, the anti-consumerist group Adbusters made a call on July 13 for an occupation of Wall Street. That and a bit of poster art were the extent of its involvement. Adbusters floated the meme and left the rest to others. The trouble was, though, that most of the others were meme floaters, too.

The web domain was registered anonymously on July 14, and it soon became the main clearinghouse for information about the movement’s progress. It remains so now and is getting, on average, about 50,000 unique visitors per day. It’s maintained mainly by a man and woman who met through the Anarchism section on the web site Reddit.

Soon came US Day of Rage, the project of Alexa O'Brien, an IT content management strategist. Since March, she has been trying to build a nationwide movement for radical campaign-finance reform - "One citizen. One dollar. One vote." - and decided to peg her efforts to the September 17 action. While she has around 20 organizers working with her in cities around the country, as far as one leading #occupywallstreet organizer in New York could tell, it seems like her only colleagues might be coffee and cigarettes.

Then, of course, there's Anonymous. The most-wanted hacker-activist collective indicated that it would join #occupywallstreet in late August. Within days, the Anons' presence in the movement was being felt through Anonymous-branded viral videos, the bombardment of the movement's Twitter hashtags (of which there is an ever-growing number) and rumors of scrutiny from Homeland Security.

The 99% meme has been very popular online
Meanwhile, quietly, a group of several hundred mainly young activists, artists and students started gathering as a "General Assembly" (GA) - a leaderless, consensus-based decision-making process. They met weekly in public parks, starting on August 2 and continuing until the occupation began, with the intention of building an  organizational and tactical framework for the action. It grew out of New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts, which had recently held a three-week occupation near City Hall called "Bloombergville" to protest against austerity measures. They had learned a lot from that and were ready to try something bigger.

The GA formed an Internet Committee, which quickly became fraught with infighting about process, security concerns and editorial control. These problems consumed hours and hours of the whole Assembly's time. Their site went up, then down and then finally up again just days before the occupation began. It is now online at, but it receives only a small fraction of the traffic of Only on Thursday afternoon did the two sites figure out how to formally coordinate their activities.

As a result of these hiccups, in the lead-up and early days of the occupation, media coverage almost always associated it with meme floaters like Adbusters, US Day of Rage and Anonymous. But none of them were especially responsible for what would be happening on the ground starting on September 17. That was the GA's doing.

Others, it seems, have taken it upon themselves to fill the GA's media vacuum of their own accord. One document being circulated and discussed online is "Occupy Wall Street - Official Demands," dated September 20 of 2013, which includes detailed proposals for reforming the financial system, none of which has been approved by the GA.

"This is definitely not ours," says Marisa Holmes, a facilitator of the GA since the first planning meetings. "All decisions made by the GA are made in this space."

Solidarity pizza orders have come in from around the globe
Worse, thanks to some imaginative theorizing by Aaron Kein of the right-wing online publication WorldNetDaily, the idea began circulating that the movement was "closely tied" with ACORN, SEIU and that it took its inspiration from the Weather Underground; George Soros; and, ultimately, President Obama himself. Five minutes at a GA meeting would easily disabuse one of such associations. The GA had no official organizational ties and, besides a food fund that has been stuck in an inaccessible WePay account, almost no money. Many wish that they had the support of unions, but so far they still don't.

What's actually underway at Liberty Plaza is both simpler and more complicated: music making, sign drawing, talking, organizing, eating, marching, standoffs with police and (not enough) sleeping. It's a movement in formation. As protesters sometimes like to chant, "This Is Just Practice." There are a handful of guys with Anonymous Guy Fawkes masks backward on their heads, but they're just one affinity group among many. O'Brien didn't appear on the plaza for a couple of days - she was "running the back-end," she says - and there has been almost no talk of "One citizen. One dollar. One vote." Adbusters sends the occasional package of posters in the mail and offers confusing advice to organizers on the ground. Nobody's exactly sure yet who is doing what, but they're learning.

For the most part, the occupation is riding the momentum started in the GA meetings that were going on for a month and a half beforehand. They built a community of people who trust each other, who have a sense for each other's skills and who are in some basic agreement about ends and means.

In the revolutions and uprisings and occupations that have been taking place around the world since the beginning of this year, there has been a lot of talk about the mobilizing power of social media - of the Twitters and Facebooks and cell phones. But when the Egyptian government shut down the Internet and the cellular signals in January, the movement there carried on. One of the deciding factors that brought down Mubarak, in the end, was not some new Twitter hashtag, but a general strike organized by traditional labor unions. The Internet can help (as well as hurt) a movement, but it's no replacement for actual relationships among actual people, building actual trust through actually working together over a period of time.

But it's not all been non-violent...
"I could have a political discussion just on the Internet," says web developer Drew Hornbein, who is on the GA's Internet Committee, "But it's nice to get out like this." When he started attending GA meetings in August, he got excited, thinking, "This is something really real. This could really be something."

So it has become. But everyone at Liberty Plaza knows the movement has to be bigger for it to have the effect they want to see. Whole swaths of Americans - from racial minorities to disgruntled Wall Streeters - are underrepresented among the occupiers. Not everyone, it seems, is quite so glued to Twitter as the young radical set. They've had to start scrambling to relearn how to make fliers, reach out to membership organizations and find people where they are to make the movement's numbers grow.

On Thursday evening, a surprise march of hundreds mourning the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia set out for Liberty Plaza from Union Square, led by occupiers. Police made attempts to stop it with barricades and clubs and arrests, but they couldn't; and when the marchers arrived, the numbers in the plaza swelled. There were a lot of new faces and new kinds of faces. It paid off to quit the Internet, go to where people actually are and bring them back.

In the GA that night, Ted Actie, who lives in Brooklyn and works for On the Spot, a minority-owned talk-show production company, called on the protesters to speak more directly to the communities around them. "You do so much social networking," he said, "you forget how to socialize."

Nirvana - Nevermind

I have to be honest; Nevermind is my least favourite Nirvana album. It doesn't have the punk fury of debut Bleach, or the experimentation of 1993's In Utero, nor the emotional intensity of their MTV Unplugged performance. But it was still absolutely superb, and it is worth remembering this weekend, as it passes its twentieth anniversary.

Beyond the music and the words though, twenty years since Nirvana's Nevermind will be to many an extraordinary marker in the passage of time. For those who grew up listening to it, Nevermind was a cultural touchstone of their generation - an event to measure their youth by. Even when I was getting into rock eight years later, buying a copy of Nevermind still seemed like a rite of passage. Judging by the number of Nirvana T-shirts the young fans of today wear, that might well still be the case. So how can we account for the immense cultural - and therefore social - significance of an album that Kurt Cobain later dismissed as being "one-dimensional".

In his review of the twentieth anniversary edition, Neil McCormick states that:
"The elusive yet somehow tangible truths in Cobain’s songwriting are located in the sound and the fury, the hurting tone of his voice, the alternately deadpan introversion and raw rage of his delivery. Addressing (and rebelling against) generational despair, Nirvana perform as if it is a matter of life and death, which retrospect tells us it really was."
This is certainly true. But beyond the sound of the album, the lyrics do also give us an insight of the mind of Cobain - an elected representative of the people in a way that a politician could never be.

When I wrote my article on Pearl Jam's Ten last month, I described how:
"In the final analysis, grunge was the product of a society that had been through the Reagan-led ruling class counter-offensive of the 1980s, and was now seeing his successor, George Bush Snr, deepen the chasm between rich and poor. The anger of hardcore punk had given way to some despair, and parts of Seattle were full of apparently futureless, often drug addicted and sometimes homeless young people, many of whom formed bands."
In that analysis, Cobain was the archetypal grunger. He was addicted to heroin, and had been homeless for long spells since leaving home at the age of sixteen. He'd sleep under bridges, in his car, or trick his way into hospital waiting rooms, just to get a roof over his head for the night. Cobain had a sense which he shared with many around him in Seattle at the time - the only way he would have any sort of future would be if he made it in music. Ironically, as we now know, it was the music industry's treatment that largely contributed to him having no future at all. On a personal level, Cobain had complicated family issues - especially with his mother - and had suffered a painful breakup with Tobi Vail of riot grrrl band Bikini Kill around the time he wrote many of the songs.

The anniversary has prompted much reminiscence and debate
All of these elements fed into a rich internal mosaic, which Cobain made public property through his words. This too was a contradiction which would haunt the rest of his life. It kicks off with Smells Like Teen Spirit, which you've probably heard way too many times, but is routinely referred to as the 'anthem for a generation'. To the extent that this is true, it was an awkward, confused, and even terrified generation - one that wanted to ask profound questions but ended up just saying "Oh well, whatever, never mind". In Bloom's chorus mocks scene posers and business types who pretended to like the band, while the apparently unrelated verses ponder fertility in definitely unflattering terms. Then it's straight on to the Killing Joke-ripping-off-but-still-classic riff of Come As You Are, which is lyrically indecipherable, but suggests a certain love of artistic honesty and openness.

Breed started life as 'Imodium', a tribute of sorts to the digestive problems of Tad Doyle from the band Tad. But perhaps Cobain balked at the puerility of this theme, and other layers were added, hinting at decisions within personal relationships. Lithium is often assumed to be a reference to the drug most commonly prescribed for those diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but it's actually far cleverer than that, comparing the euphoria of 'born again' Christians with a drugged sense of reality - something the writer himself had experienced from both sides. Polly then breaks up the album with a very bare account of how a young punk fan was abducted, raped and tortured after a gig, before pretending to enjoy her treatment, and finally catching her abuser "off guard" and escaping.

We're then very definitely back into the rock with Territorial Pissings - a furious anti-machismo song which begins with an ironic invocation of hippy standard Get Together by The Youngbloods. Once you get that reference, you can't honestly assert that Nirvana didn't say anything about the society they had grown up in. Then follows Drain You, which emerged from the wreckage of Cobain's relationship with Vail, but almost questions the basis of all relationships with its ultra-clinical depiction of various intimate acts. Lounge Act and Stay Away are actually pretty forgettable - were it not for the fact they're on Nevermind. But On A Plain is remarkable, if only for the fact that parts of it mechanically describe Kurt trying to write a song, even though he has nothing in particular to say at the time. This is a quintessentially postmodern problem, written just as pomo was starting to thoroughly poison the cultural waters.

Nevermind concludes with the almost unbearable but brilliant Something In The Way, which is more sparse even than Polly, just lightly strummed chords, cello, and nearly whispered vocals. Producer Butch Vig has said that when Kurt recorded this, he had to turn the mics way up, because the levels were far too low. At the end, everyone was stunned into silence. I'm sure I would have been too. It has been widely speculated that the verse lyrics are related to his homeless days, but the chorus - and its delivery - is perhaps the most eloquent passage of the entire forty-two minutes.

Yes, there is something in the way. There always seems to be something in the way. So many of us know that feeling, like so many of us know so many of the feelings on the record. And that - for all its opacity - is the main reason that so many of us get THAT feeling when we listen to Nevermind.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Unite Official Slams "Cancerous" Electricians' Resistance

Bernard McAulay thinks rank-and-filers who challenge him are "cancerous"
This morning, electricians briefly occupied a construction site in Farringdon, London, as part of their rank-and-file organised campaign against wage cuts of up to 35%. However, a leaked email has shown the contempt which Unite union tops hold for the aspirations of their own membership.

Three weeks ago, I described how the 'Sparks' rank-and-file group have elected their own fightback committee, intended to run parallel to the Unite leadership, and force their hand through wildcat mini strikes and direct action. Since then, the committee has organised several set-piece events, including today's demonstrations in Newcastle and the capital. Yet the union has yet to ballot for strike action, and tensions are running high, because Balfour Beatty electricians are just eighty-three days from losing their jobs, or losing their current pay rate.

The message from Unite's national construction officer Bernard McAulay to a "Gail" (likely assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail) reveals just how panicked officials are by the rank-and-file challenge to their position and privileges. In the email, McAulay bemoans the fact that a:
"group of activist [sic] decided to form a Rank and File campaign committee nominating Gerry [sic] Hicks to be there [sic] Chairman, resulting in Gerry [sic] travelling the country addressing meetings attacking not only the Employers but more importantly our Union's leadership and the capability of the Unite Officers."
Embarrassingly for him, and indeed the whole Unite bureaucracy, McAulay then fretted that:
"The constant scurrilous attacks on officials by this small fringe group does have an impact on our campaign, as this cancerous group are simply opportunist's [sic] and extremely divisive when making there [sic] contribution at meetings, especially when fellow colleagues and members challenge these individuals, results in these individuals submitting unnecessary and frivolous complaints to the General Secretary, resulting in officers been [sic] investigated and tied up in preparing reports to defend themselves, which is time consuming and a unnecessary waste of an officers [sic] time."
Here, laid bare, is the real nature of the relationship between union officials and workers striving to save jobs, pay and conditions in the UK and all around the world. The tops live very comfortably off membership dues, and will do everything to protect their own lavish lifestyles, at the expense of the regular workforce. Hence sell-out after sell-out.

In all likelihood McAulay was planning a ballot, maybe for an isolated one day nationwide strike when it was too late to make a difference. He has form in this regard, having sold-out Vivergo construction workers in Hull earlier this year. In this sense, Sparks is his worst nightmare - an expression of grassroots dissent which he has little to no control over. With public sector union leaders trying to stifle opposition to the government's pensions raid, this confrontation could hardly have come at a more interesting time. McAulay's comments have just poured petrol on the spark of resistance.

More links:

September 7th demonstration from margaret dickinson on Vimeo.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

On Human Nature

My Liverpool-based comrade James Moffatt recently posted on my two interlinked pet topics/hobby horses - the 'human nature' argument against communism, and the relationship between individual self-interest and solidarity. Though I'd like to have seen some 'selfish gene' Dawkins in there, the article is a great read, and full of interesting perspectives. I know James put a lot into this piece - even going so far as to write it out on A4 first - so give it a go and make sure he used his time well. Here are the first few paragraphs, followed by a link:

Arguments I see time and time again against left-wing politics is that “human nature will get in the way” or “it ignores human nature”. Recently I’ve even seen this argument trotted out by people on the left, that any future system must “take human nature into account”. It’s fairly clear what is meant here without asking too many questions. Human beings are selfish. Human beings only work in their own self-interest and that this is natural. But I believe this to be wrong. This blog post will hopefully explain why.

The complexity of this subject has seemingly always been acknowledged but the approaches of philosophers, scientists and economists have varied widely over the centuries. The ancient Greek approach held that destiny played a large role in human nature as every human was thought to be in some small way divine.

As time went on, this metaphysical view of human nature fell out of vogue and philosophers began to rely more on observation of human tendencies. Thomas Hobbes had a particularly pessimistic view of human nature as fundamentally violent. Following this, Rousseau held that there was no predestination involved in human nature. He believed that morality was a natural possession of human beings and that the construction of institutions, language and concepts such as justice are a necessary development from this, and that further to this, the importance of government and commerce had undermined liberty.

Later, following general acceptance of Darwin’s ideas on evolution and natural selection, an idea built up of nature in general being a brutal and violent struggle pitting individual against individual in a battle for survival.  The complexity of Darwin’s idea was frequently and erroneously boiled down into soundbites like Darwin’s unfortunate yet metaphorical “Survival of the fittest” and (retrospectively) Tennyson’s “Nature, red in tooth and claw”. Inevitably this was applied to the economic, social and political ideas of the day. Indeed, this narrow view of evolution seemed to reaffirm the class divisions and economic inequalities of Victorian society.  A society divided by class and deeply uneven in economic terms suddenly had a basis in reason, a scientific justification.

Darwin himself knew, of course, that this was a gross oversimplification and had anticipated such misunderstandings by pointing out in The Origin of Species that his phrase “Survival of the fittest” was more metaphor than an attempt to distil evolution into an easily digestible soundbite.
Click here for the rest of the article.

Welsh Miners: Four More Victims of the Profit System

Gleision colliery in 2008 - notice wooden tunnel props
Responding to the four deaths at Gleision drift mine at Cilybebyll, South Wales last week, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have launched a joint investigation with the police. Their report is expected to be months away, however it is already clear that the deaths - like so many in the UK and around the world - can be attributed to the supremacy of the profit motive over the needs of working class people.

Charles Breslin (62), Phillip Hill (45), Garry Jenkins (39) and David Powell (50) all died on Thursday 15th, when the mine they were working in was flooded. A wall holding back gallons of filthy rainwater apparently gave way, and the route to the surface - some ninety metres up - was cut off. Three miners just about managed to escape, including David Powell's twenty-six-year-old son, Daniel.

According to a family friend:
"All Daniel kept saying afterwards was that it isn’t safe down there. The family want to see the pit shut down for good – they don’t want anyone else to go through the nightmare they have suffered over the last few days. The pit was constantly filling with water – it was a constant battle to keep it pumped out so the men could go down there."
If there is to be a serious inquiry, questions must be asked about how the men were permitted to work in such obviously dangerous circumstances. But the answers to those questions are systematic - and will undoubtedly prove too much for the highly compromised HSE.

Gleision has been opened, closed and then re-opened several times over the past decade, with the fluctuating price of anthracite - the type of coal mined at the colliery - an important factor. The current owner - Gerald Ward - was prosecuted for passing off sub-standard coal as anthracite in 2002, but this was not enough to disqualify him from owning collieries and selling coal.

The law states that mining should not take place within forty-five metres in any direction of a layer of rock containing water. This was clearly not adhered to at Gleision, yet the HSE gave it a clean bill of health on 17th May 2010, and were not due to make another visit until later this year. The Daily Mail claims that:

"The four miners who died in a flooded Welsh colliery may have been working in an underground extension which was given planning consent last year. They are believed to have pierced an old, unknown chamber—flooded from weeks of heavy rainfall—causing tons of water to engulf them."

The Gleision deaths were far from the first in Welsh mining
In other words, the miners died because they were mining an area which was unmapped, and was bearing the weight of a wet summer's rainfall. That this could happen in 2011 - with all the technology potentially at our disposal - is staggering.

Yet it is not surprising. Since Thatcher carried out her assault on UK miners in the 1980s, conditions in the few remaining UK collieries have returned to levels not seen since the nationalisation of the mines in the 1940s. As local ex-miner Dai Thomas told the Wales on Sunday: "There was no such thing as health and safety for these boys. It is not viable to take coal out of these small mines without cutting corners."

Every year, around two hundred workers are killed on the job in the UK alone. Though these deaths are normally written of as 'accidents', in reality almost all result from a lack of appropriate health and safety measures, and - in the final analysis - from the relentless drive for profit. The Health and Safety Executive has never been truly 'independent', but year after year of funding cuts have left it devastated and toothless. Against the ruling class bluster about overreaching health and safety 'red tape', improving workplace safety will have to be an important priority for a new workers' movement.

For more information on the dangers of the workplace, check out Familes Against Corporate Killers and the Hazards campaign.

Friday, September 16, 2011

'Fuck the police!' Working-class youth and the routine abuse of power

A routine check. Image:
Justin Baidoo-Hackman - who is also currently involved in activism against the proposed evictions of Dale Farm and the families of those associated with the riots - has written an article for OurKingdom about the extent of police repression in Britain. Though I find a couple of his concluding demands too liberal, the piece itself is a thorough and well-researched exposé of some simmering resentments which contributed to this summer's riots. Below, I republish the article in full. Click here to visit the OurKingdom homepage, where you can find many more interesting articles.

On Monday 8th August, in South London, three hundred young people gathered outside Battersea’s Lavender Hill police station "taunting" the police to come out. In Nottingham, three police stations were attacked including Canning Circus police station, which was firebombed. The Pembury Estate in Hackney erupted when the police stopped and searched a teenager. As one young girl said in Peckham that day:
“I will die for the cause of FUCK THE POLICE! They fuck our lives up every day!”

These were outbursts of anger and even hatred towards the police. If any part of the post-Tottenham riots had political content, this was it.

The knee-jerk political responses to the England riots distracted parliament and the public from a key issue which that girl from Peckham understood: the significant and sustained misuse of police powers.
In the week of the riots, when Tory MPs variously demanded that rioters be detained in Wembley stadium, sprayed with indelible chemical dye, water-cannoned and tear-gassed, former minister Peter Lilley demanded that the government stick to its plans to cut police budgets.

Based on my own and my family’s experiences I suggest cuts to bureaucracy would not — in Peter Lilley’s words —  “make the police more efficient” but instead would lead to further abuses of power by the state, abuses which ultimately endanger all civil rights.

Stop and Search: A case study in vindictive policing

As a 29-year-old black man born and bred in London, I have never been stopped and searched by the police. Perhaps it is because I look like and am a computer geek, I don't know.

My 24-year-old brother Gus has been stopped and searched countless times. For months on end, he was subjected to sustained police harassment.

It started in 2001, when he was 14 years old. Wimbledon’s Criminal Investigations Department (CID) came to our home and charged him with robbery. Gus admitted taking a school friend's house keys after an argument and explained that he had tried to give them back. The police gave him a final caution and warned him that next time he’d be going to court.

After that, Gus was frequently stopped and searched in the Mitcham and Colliers Wood area of South London. He would complain to my mother that he wanted our family to leave the area as he hated it, but nobody took his allegations seriously.

A few weeks after the robbery accusation, Gus was with friends on his way to school when plain-clothes police officers arrested him alone for ‘causing an affray’. The Magistrates Court threw out the case due to the officers’ unreliable testimony, calling the charges spurious.

It got worse. Gus said he could identify which cars were following him but I dismissed that as paranoia. He told me that once police driving a car spotted him on a bus, flagged it down, marched him off and then searched him in the road. He hated walking the streets alone, knowing that he would be subjected to a “routine check”, as illustrated by this rap song by British duo, The Mitchell Brothers.

This became a regular ritual of aggression and shame. It wasn’t just because he was black, it developed into a personal vendetta. 

Six weeks after the farce at the Magistrates Court, my brother and his friends were walking home from a local youth club when police sirens and lights headed towards them. "They are coming for me", he said. His friends laughed and joked in disbelief, but he was proved right.

Gus was charged for robbery of an off-duty police officer's chequebook. As he was forcefully handcuffed on the floor, his friends attacked the police car in outrage and retaliation; two of his peers were arrested but later one was released without charge and the other was subsequently charged alongside my brother. The allegation was that Gus, with two other boys, had pounced on an off-duty police officer at night and stolen the officer’s chequebook.

The police kept my brother overnight in South Norwood Police Station where, he claims, two police officers punched him in the head, directing blows at the temples and at the back. (We later understood that this was to avoid visible bruising). This happened a few days after his 15th birthday.

The following morning, when my mother was on her way to collect him, Wimbledon police came to our home to search for the "officer's missing chequebook". My grandmother and my youngest brothers (then aged 6 and 7) were present and the youngest even had a pleasant chat with one of the officers while our house was being turned upside down. The chequebook wasn't found but the police still pursued the charge of theft to the Magistrates Court.

Gus and a friend were convicted of robbery but Gus’s conviction was overturned on appeal, as it came out in the Crown Court that his alibi  — he said he was in the youth club — was corroborated by youth workers and the youth club register.

My mother got support from the local MP, Siobhan McDonagh, who told Wimbledon police that she would help our family sue for them for harassment. After McDonagh’s intervention — and only after that — we received a written apology from a chief constable, and the campaign of harassment ended for Gus.
Is this a tragic, isolated case? I cannot produce concrete evidence that on dropped or acquitted charges, black family homes are more likely to be searched than those belonging to white or other ethnic groups. However, let’s look at the context: people of African descent are seven times more likely to be stopped and searched in the UK than white people.

The day after the Tottenham riots, thirty South London leaders of Ashanti, a Ghanaian ethnic group, held their bi-monthly meeting. Every parent who attended reported that at least one of their children had suffered sustained harassment by the Metropolitan Police. It was always between the ages of 13 and 17. This is the experience of just one of many African and African-Caribbean communities in the UK. Rather than upholding the law, some elements of the Metropolitan Police across London are misusing their powers for extra-judicial punishment meted out to those they happen to despise.

Stop and search is a pernicious power. The received view is that it is used by the police in too blanket a fashion, and by indiscriminately selecting entire groups - young men with hoods, young blacks - causes generalised grievance. My experience is that the police use the power in a discriminating and selective fashion, singling out individuals they decide to 'get' and then getting them.

This is not just a race issue but also a class issue. When David Starkey claimed the whites had become black, he was referring to white working class children adopting popular black youth culture. His claims (evil black youth corrupting previously innocent whites), allude to a truth: that many white working class youths of Nottingham, Manchester and Liverpool suffer similar abuses of police power and thus express similar anger towards the police.

What is wrong and what must be done

The Tottenham and subsequent riots must be seen in the context of the death of Mark Duggan, the Met’s 320th death in police contact since 1990. The riots were fuelled by the perception and experience by some communities of persistent discriminative police brutality. The Scarman Report of 1981 was supposed to resolve this and now in 2011, the same issues are being repeated. The police are now allowed to arrest based on race. How did we get here again?

Since the Blair premiership, tabloids - especially the Murdoch press - have portrayed The Hooded Teenager as the bete-noir of local high streets. A group of children sitting outside a shopping centre became a "gang", and ephebiphobia (the fear and loathing of particularly working class youth) became a national past-time.

The New Labour era ushered in performance targets. Funding for police constabularies was contingent on meeting these targets set by Whitehall, and this filtered down into a perception of police officers having to make a certain number of arrests each year in order or face punishment. This was especially true in Merton, the borough my family still live in, where in 2007, one officer was being threatened with action for failing to achieve three arrests in 15 weeks.

Policing was turned on its head: crime prevention was no longer a priority — the police now relied on crime to save their own jobs. This perverse incentive combined with tabloid hysteria ("feral hoodies", "chav scum") and institutional racism, creating a climate of hostility towards young people who hung around street corners listening to grime and hip hop. After the terrorist attacks on 7th July bombings, New Labour also brought in special anti-terrorism laws. David Davis, former shadow Conservative Home Secretary, recently remarked that "not one of its 100,000 stop and searches under the Terrorism Act had led to a terror-related arrest", let alone a conviction.

When the coalition government came to power, Theresa May rightly called for an end to the target culture and has scrapped performance targets in policing. May also pledged to scrap unnecessary paperwork. In February this year Parliament approved alarming reductions in the information recorded on stop and search which, according to the Runnymede trust, “will now make it impossible to measure repeat stops and harassment; the effectiveness of a stop and search; and any misuse of force.”

Cutting police red tape: what could possibly go wrong?

What’s more, said the Trust, “police will no long be required to record the use of ‘stop and account’, which will make it impossible to determine if stop powers are being used proportionately and remove local community scrutiny of stop practices.”
This drive to cut bureaucracy conveniently forgets that much of it provides a necessary check on those officers inclined to misuse their powers. It is particularly troubling at a time when the Prime Minister has sanctioned the use of rubber bullets and water cannons and declares that our "human rights culture" is a problem.

Though I am not more than a community activist, from my experience, I would recommend the following:

1. Stop police cuts to enable local police transparency: Ensure a minimum ratio of back office staff to police officers/activity. Local police constabularies must publish online police activity/arrests maps alongside already existing online local crime maps. They should detail aggregate non-identifying information such as postcodes and wards that have had stop-and-account and warrant searches, and this should be traced to conviction rates.

2. Scrap Sus, anti-protest and other illiberal laws: Abolish stop-and-search, the SOCPA Act of 2005, remove the ability to create non-protest zones, repeal the parts of the Counter Terrorist Act which criminalises photographing the police. Remove provisions in the current Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, which allow police constables the power to confiscate personal property in Parliament Square.

3. Demilitarise the police: Ban the use of tasers, rubber bullets and water cannons. Reinstate the division between arrestable and non-arrestable offences. Abolish the Territorial Support Group.

4. Reform the IPCC: All IPCC investigations should be public unless requested by the complainant. Make the IPCC commissioners directly elected, not appointed by the Home Secretary, with powers of recall initiated through a process that involves complainants creating a petition. Enact the proposals made by INQUEST’s Response To IPCC Stock Take Consultation 2008.

The way things are now, the police do not act as a public service for all. For many they are a brutal, malicious force who use their powers in both arbitrary and despotic ways, punishing individuals without due process. As such they are, as we can see, intensely resented not just by the individuals who directly experience this but also by their relatives, friends and contacts who live in fear of the police, a classic and familiar consequence of despotism. It is certainly a very long way from policing by consent.

Justin Baidoo-Hackman is a software developer and Community Activist from South London. He edits a political blog called "The Multicultural Politic".

The Day I Tried To E-Petition Parliament

The system is broken, so the system works...just not for you!
As regular readers will appreciate, I'm no reformist. I believe the absolute best thing politicians could do for working class people is legislate concessions which our mass direct action had already made inevitable. Still, I was more than slightly interested in this e-petition thingy. After all, if fake libertarian 'Guido Fawkes' (AKA Paul Staines) could start a petition demanding the reinstatement of the death penalty - and hit the headlines in the process - maybe I could initiate a public debate on what is really the central political question of the day (FYI, Guido is now trailing 'Petition to retain the ban on Capital Punishment', and didn't the original Guido want to send Parliament a gunpowder 'petition'?).

My question - though politicians and the media never actually debate it - is should resources be transferred from the working class to the bankers, or the other way around? For our political masters, it doesn't even count as a question. Their inalienable truth - which they try to force down our throats on every news broadcast - is that there's 'no alternative' to bailing out the financial aristocrats for the crisis they triggered. Once a political figure accepts this central tenet of the late capitalist creed, the only question can be over how to make the working class pay - hence the ultra-narrow and ever-shrinking spectrum of Westminster 'debate'. Well, quite frankly, fuck that. Down that path lies only our utter slavery and immiseration.

So I decided to go through the e-petition process, if only to expose it. I fantasised about mass media coverage and watching the MPs try to squirm out of publicly debating the motion 'The bankers should pay for the crisis they created'. Inside though, I knew that was too good to be true. Some bourgeois machination would stop me.

Despite my realistic pessimism, I nominated Her Majesty's Treasury as the "responsible department", and asserted that:
"The government is currently slashing public services, jobs, and working class living standards, in the name of paying off the national debt. However, this debt exists in large measure due to the bailout of the bankers, following the financial crisis they themselves triggered. We demand that the government confiscate all the bailout money and all banking sector profits, and redistribute them in a way that will benefit the working class."
Maybe call it a 'transitional demand'...

Anyway, that was 17th August. Five days later, I received a disappointing email from HM Government. My petition had been rejected, because "There is already an e-petition about this issue."

Well actually, that's not true. There are 105 open petitions listed when you search for 'bankers', but surprisingly they seem to include 'Show Horse Awareness Adverts On Television', which claims that "Horse riding is becoming a more popular sport something has to be done", but doesn't mention banks at all. There's also the ingenious 'Replace Public Sector with Computers/Smartphone App' and 'Fridge Tax', which is apparently a potential anti-obesity measure.

True, some petitions call for curbs on the banks, but none to the extent of mine. Some want bankers' bonuses to be taxed, and others seek their outright ban, but none call for the wholesale redistribution of wealth from the banks to the working class.

Furthermore, there are no less than twenty-one petitions against the proposed DEFRA badger cull - of which eight are titled 'Stop the badger cull' (with only letter case and punctuation differences) - and all express very similar sentiments.

Plainly, this is not an automated system. There is someone - or some team of people - sitting somewhere in Whitehall, arbitrarily deciding whether or not to allow a petition through. Understandably, their decisions seem to be based less on some rigid criteria, and rather more on their own beliefs. If that's the case, then this supposedly 'democratic' reform is just another illusion.

But then you knew that.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Public Sector Strike Predictions

Expect to see old pictures like this dredged up over the next couple of months
General secretaries have used the Trades Union Congress conference in London to announce that they will be balloting their membership for strike action against the government's raid on pensions. So far, only 30% of the public sector workforce is covered by the ballots, but already the ruling class is howling in outrage. Using past experience and a little dialectical materialism - i.e. revolutionary common sense as a philosophical guide for the working class movement - what can be predicted over the next few months?

1) Rank-and-file workers will desperately want to resist
Why wouldn't they? After all, they face a doubling or even tripling of their pension contributions, but will receive less when they eventually retire, years later than they currently do. This is clearly unacceptable. Add wage freezes and redundancies into the mix, and public sector workers have lots of reasons to be angry.

2) However, this anger will not translate into an equally huge 'yes' vote
This will be because a) workers lose pay when they strike, and b) many will not have confidence in the union's ability to win. Three quarters of a million struck in June, and lost money but didn't see any sign of retreat from the government.

3) The government will oppose the strike
Of course they will; no government would ever supported a strike against itself - this stands to reason. And the coalition want to use the economic crisis to push working class living standards back to pre-war levels. The slimeball Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude will be everywhere again, feigning concern about 'ordinary people' caught up in the 'chaos', and trying to push the line that 'we're all in it together', despite his estimated person wealth of £3 million. If the turnout is sufficiently low, this will be a central plank of his 'argument'.

4) The media will oppose the strike
Like as they did back in June, the right wing press will unleash the dogs of war, condemning 'dinosaur' and 'hate-filled' union leaders for the 'chaos', while calling attention to the 'hypocrisy' of the well-heeled tops. They'll prattle on about the 'Winter of Discontent', or the 1926 general strike, or even both, non-sensically, in the same sentence. They'll also try to play public sector workers against their private sector counterparts. The Guardian etc will call for 'calm' and 'clear heads'. The BBC will show its 'neutrality' by pitting Maude against one of the more eloquent bureaucrats, but the questioner will quite obviously side with the government's case.

The TUC's Brendan Barber and Labour's Ed Miliband are both class enemies
5) The Labour Party will oppose the strike
As he did yesterday, Labour leader Ed Miliband will repeat his mantra about 'ongoing negotiations', and brand the strike a 'mistake'. He will do this because his key constituency is the ruling class, not the working class, and he wants to demonstrate he is a 'safe pair of hands' to run crisis-wracked capitalism.

6) The union bureaucracy will work to control and stifle the strikes
The union bosses make a good living out of being the go-betweens, and their main priority is to stay in such a privileged position. Their worst nightmare is grassroots solidarity across the affected unions, making them irrelevant. Though the strikes may be 'co-ordinated' to an extent - i.e. happen on the same day - they will remain separate in practical terms. The issues of redundancies and pay freezes will not be aired in any significant way.

7) The union bureaucracy will sell out their membership
They will talk quite a good game, but fail to walk the walk when the time comes. The government will refuse to give way, and so the tops' task will be to sell the 'deal' to their membership. As one alternative to pension cuts might be more redundancies - and hence less membership dues coming in - they will sacrifice rank-and-file living standards on the altar of their own.

8) Then come unknown factors. Either:
a) A disappointed and demoralised rank-and-file will reluctantly accept the 'deal'
This has happened an enormous amount of times over the last twenty-five years. Workers lose hundreds and maybe thousands of pounds from their pay packets, and don't believe they have a hope of overturning the employer's will. So they accept the deal, with a low turnout.

b) A furious rank-and-file will take democratic control of their own struggle, unify across sectional lines, and go on an all-out attack against the government.
This would be a new one for the current generation, but it certainly can't be ruled out. The government attacks are so huge that they may be impossible to swallow for many rank-and-filers. Electricians are already starting to form their own rank-and-file committee parallel to the Unite union, so this example may spread, as might examples from Egypt or Greece, for instance.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

The Commune Debates the Riots and More

As you might expect, extensive coverage of the riots dominates this second edition of the new Commune format. Joe Thorne contends that the phenomenon is best understood as a class-based social explosion, while David Broder argues that many of the participants may have had "nothing to lose", but they also had "nothing to win" by their actions. Meanwhile, Clifford Biddulph looks for a way that communists can engage with the rioters and their communities. There are also local reports from James Roberts in Liverpool and Sharon Borthwick in Peckham.

Away from the flames and the fury, there's plenty of other important stuff been happening over the last month. So Liam Turbett celebrates what he calls a "victorious conclusion" to the occupation of Glasgow University's Hetherington building, and the editorial argues that communists should not argue for a state ban on EDL activity.

This, plus more Eurozone and Libya analysis, is available for PDF download here, as well as from radical bookshops, social centres, and by emailing

Friday, September 02, 2011

Yosh - The Poisoning EP

On 3rd July 2011, twenty-six year old Manchester rapper Yosh was just starting his set at a community event in Rochdale's Broadfield Park. He asked the crowd “who wants to hear how the police statistically stop more ethnic minorities than white people?”, and launched into The Message, at which point the event organisers cut off his backing track. Yosh tried to continue, but then five police tackled him, grabbed the mic off him, before finally escorting him off the premises. The next day, Yosh found that he'd been banned from his local gym because of the incident. For the record - and to annoy any police who happen not to like conscious hiphop - the full transcript of The Message is as follows, as far as I can make out:

"I come to topple the tyrants
Bin Laden isn't dead
Was never really alive
It's just another lie
To keep the wool on your eyes
Nick Clegg and Cameron insiders
Fabricating characters to give society a fucking enemy
So they can go about tryna take over steadily
Revolution is the only way
A wake up is needed
I can see the way they deceiving
Coming through the TV it's trauma-based mind control
So you can live, act and think like a mindless drone
Her Royal Highness who's sat behind the throne
All-seeing eyes popping up to idolise the glow
Speech patterns - I can hear the lies unfold
And shoot holes in 99% of lies we're told
Fuck the government
Treat us like we're nine years old
They're coming for us
That's the reason why it's knives we hold

"Yesterday I saw the popo pulling over three men
For nothing but their skin colour
When will they stop?
Turned a head to see a poster saying 'vote'
I nearly choked
I know it's just a sick joke devilish plot
Too many tensions from government intentions
Pensions turning into spends for inventions of warfare
Tell me that I'm wrong to be militant
It's on cos we're cashing in promises they've given us
To believe that these devils will deliver us
Taxpayers footing the bill for politicians living frivolous
Everybody's fucked in the budget
Cuts everywhere like we don't know what the result is
More debt to keep us all enslaved
And more threats to keep the fear engraved
I ain't hearing the brainwash
I don't give a fuck how much your chain cost
You're just another part of the oppressor like J was"

I could tell you The Poisoning sounds fresh. I could tell you it sounds 100% heartfelt. I could tell you that much of it is excellent politics. But perhaps the most important thing I could say about this EP is it is that it's by the MC Greater Manchester Police doesn't want you to hear. If you're anything like me, that's about the best recommendation going. Free speech is available on download here.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Proposed Electricians Pay Cut Sparks Resistance

The Sparks are challenging the Unite leadership, but will need to remain vigilant
Electricians angry about proposed swingeing cuts to their wages are taking an innovative course of action in an attempt to resist the employers' attacks. The success or failure of their initiative may serve as a useful pointer for other workers defending their livelihoods.

Eight major construction employers (Bailey, Balfour Beatty, T. Clarke, Crown House, Gratte Brothers, MJN Colston, SES and SPIE Matthew Hall) want to tear up the "archaic" Joint Industry Board, Pay and Conditions agreement. If they get their way, separate pay rates will be imposed for metalworkers (£10.50 per hour), wiring (£12), and terminating (£14). At the moment, all electricians across the board should receive £16.25. For metalworkers, this would represent a pay cut of 35%, at a time when inflation is running at around 5%. Deskilling and its corollary - increased workplace 'accidents' - would inevitably follow.

A group of electricians calling themselves 'The Sparks' are justifiably skeptical that Unite bureaucrats will successfully wage a struggle in their interests. As I have stated repeatedly on this blog, union tops have separate and often directly contradictory interests to their membership, and cannot be trusted one iota in their dealings with bosses. The Sparks' strategy to this point has been to remain within Unite, and yet organise their own parallel rank-and-file protests and actions, through an elected strike committee.

This committee was elected at a London meeting on 13th August. It contains four serving electricians, one blacklisted electrician, and Jerry Hicks, the defeated 2010 'left' candidate for the Unite general secretaryship. Since then, the committee has organised two large 'unofficial' protests - at a Balfour Beatty site in Blackfriars, and the new Westfield Centre in Stratford. For its part, the Unite leadership have distanced themselves from this action, and are merely asking non-unionised electricians to join up.

This dispute is well worth keeping an eye out for. The employers want to bring in the new pay rates for March next year. Before then, The Sparks will want to escalate their action, perhaps go out on strike, and bring in construction workers from other unions, such as UCATT and GMB. If this were achieved, it would cut right across the interests of Unite tops, who would undoubtedly support any state action to suppress the movement. This is a struggle which has the potential to 'spark' others throughout construction, and various different industries. But to achieve that - and indeed to defend their own living standards - The Sparks will have to resist all attempts to water down their tactics, or to take the fight out of their own hands.

The Wilfred Owen Story

The Wilfred Owen Story 'shop front' on Argyle Street
"Above all I am not concerned with poetry. My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity. Yet these elegies are to this generation in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All a poet can do today is warn. That is why the true poets must be truthful."

At fourteen, I did Wilfred Owen's war poetry in school, and now as I look back it seems like a defining moment. Through the pull-no-punches bleakness of his imagery, and his sympathy for German soldiers, I could feel any traces of nationalism within me die away. Suddenly I could see it was nothing more than "the old lie" - a tool for the rich, the better to divide the poor. Like all great art, Owen's work makes hidden truths visible. He means a lot to me.

Unfortunately, Owen's links with Merseyside are not so well known, and go largely unmarked. That's why I was so glad to make a visit to The Wilfred Owen Story, a small exhibition space on Argyle Street, Birkenhead, less than a mile from where the Owen family lived from 1900-03, following their move from Shrewsbury. Due to the truly radical nature of his work, we can't trust the politicians to honour his legacy, because they just wouldn't know what to do with it, except perhaps bury it. Here, a small team of volunteers keep the shop-style venue open, relying on goodwill from the public to keep the wolf from the door.

Tragically killed at the age of twenty-five, just a week before World War One ended, Owen's greatest artistic strength was his great compassion, which was shaped by the circumstances of his life. Born in Oswestry, Shropshire to a relatively comfortable standard of living, his family experienced poverty in Birkenhead when his grandfather died. In order to qualify for university, Wilfred became a lay assistant to a vicar in Dunsden, Oxfordshire. There he witnessed squalor and sickness, and his slightly self-obsessed poetry became more outward-looking. Owen also became disillusioned with Christianity, in part due to the church's blatant indifference to the suffering which surrounded it. As he wrote to his devoutly religious mother: "I have murdered my false creed. If a true one exists, I shall find it. If not, adieu to the still falser creeds that hold the hearts of nearly all my fellow men."

Owen's poetry remains a powerful antidote to elite propaganda
When war broke out in 1914, Owen was working for low pay as a teacher in Bordeaux, France. War fever was not at the heights that it was back home, so his first real contact with the slaughter came as he watched the casualties come in from the front, and survivors being operated on without anaesthetic. He joined up in June 1915, feeling that he would find the major inspiration for his poetry where the action was. Two years later, he was caught in a shell explosion, and invalided to Craiglockhart hospital near Edinburgh. It was there that Owen would meet the officer, well-known poet and newly-minted anti-war activist Siegfried Sassoon, and thanks to Sassoon's encouragement, Owen went on to write many of his famous poems while he convalesced.

Three main threads ran through Owen's war poetry. First and foremost, a horror at what he had seen and done as a soldier, which was married to a deep distrust of and hatred for the officers and politicians. But still, he kept going, because his comrades kept going, and there was apparently no alternative. Perhaps his most moving words come in Strange Meeting, a kind of love letter to a dead 'enemy' solider, in which Owen acknowledges their common humanity, before concluding: "I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned/Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed/I parried; but my hands were loath and cold/Let us sleep now..."

The Wilfred Owen Story could not hope to convey all of this intensity, but it helps keep the memory alive with its presence on one of Birkenhead's central streets. Visitors can see the Owen family tree, read a little on his time in the town, read some of his major poems, look at and listen to artwork inspired by Owen, examine newspaper cuttings, and even view a photocopy of Owen's original Anthem For Doomed Youth draft, complete with crossings-out etc.

With UK armed forces fighting in Afghanistan and Libya, and with the inevitability of more wars to come as the economic crisis worsens, Owen's legacy has possibly never been more vital. In a world where most citizens oppose their rulers' wars, yet almost all corporate and state media tries to glorify it, the poetry of Wilfred Owen is a powerful antidote.

The Wilfred Owen Story is at 34 Argyle Street, Birkenhead, and is open Tuesday to Friday, 11 am to 2 pm.

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