Saturday, February 26, 2011

Utopia: 'Free Education', 'Free Schools' and Free Students

Paulo Freire: criticised the "banking concept" of schooling
Following the UK government's decision to let universities charge £9,000 a year in tuition fees, students on rallies and occupations have again raised the demand for free education. Of course there should be no barriers or disincentives to education, because everyone benefits when someone gets educated. No-one should have to pay for education, whether they are children, young adults, older adults looking to pick up a new skill, or even (shock horror!) wanting to learn for the pleasure of learning. But to me and many other communists, 'free education' means far more than not having to pay for it.

'Free education' is not compatible with capitalism. Though there have been liberal reforms down the years - such as the abolition of caning - the fundamental structure of schooling remains unchanged from Victorian times, when it was made compulsory by the capitalist state in much of Europe. Then as now, apart from the basic skills needed for the workplace, the main lesson learned by pupils is defeat at the hands of the state. It could also be argued that this is also a basic skill needed for the workplace. Yes, from the age of four you must get up early, do things you probably don't want to do, and be ordered around by people you may not like. You must stand in line. You must respond to bells and whistles. You must not question your superiors.

The Brazilian educationalist Paolo Freire argued that even if you did want to learn what was on offer, the education systems of capitalist states were completely unsuitable. He criticised the top-down nature of what he called the "banking concept", by which teachers dictated what was to be learned, pupils memorised the 'facts' as presented, and regurgitated them when it was time for assessment. For Freire:
"Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students." By contrast, in a "problem-posing education, people develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation." 
Though Ferrer was murdered by the state, his dream lives on
At the turn of the last century, Spanish anarchist Francisco Ferrer established an Escuela Moderna in Barcelona, with the stated aim of educating "the working class in a rational, secular and non-coercive setting". Unfortunately, even freedom is never free under a capitalist system, and the school was forced to introduce tuition fees, finally closing after five years. Ferrer himself was executed without trial for sedition, following the Catalan 'Tragic Week'. However, his influence survived him, as his The Origins and Ideals of the Modern School was translated into English, and anarchists in New York, London, Liverpool and other places followed his example and ran free schools in the lead-up to World War One.

In tribute to Ferrer, I'll conclude on a suitably utopian note, by quoting the words of a nine-year-old girl who attended Ferrer's school. We can only imagine a teacher's response to this under the National Curriculum:
"A criminal is condemned to death; if the murderer deserves this punishment, the man who condemns him and the man who kills him are also murderers; logically, they ought to die as well, and so humanity would come to an end. It would be better, instead of punishing a criminal by committing another crime, to give him good advice, that he will not do it again. Besides, if we are all equal, there would be no thieves, or assassins, or rich people, or poor, but all would be equal and love work and liberty."

Friday, February 25, 2011

Eighth General Strike Shuts Down Half Greek Economy

Demonstrators resisted the usual police violence
On Wednesday, Greek workers took part in their eighth one day general strike since 'centre-left' Prime Minister Prime Minister George Papandreou started imposing drastic cuts and attacks on working class conditions. The strike was called by the GSEE private sector union confederation, and ADEDY, its equivalent organisation in the public sector. It was the first such strike of 2011, and in line with the union bosses' token policy of calling workers out once every few months, while their colleagues in government get on with their work of destroying people's lives.

Public transport was severely hit, and Athens airport had to cancel more than one hundred fights. Utility workers struck, alongside health professionals, tax collectors and lawyers. Many small businesses also closed for the day, with an estimated 120,0000 facing bankruptcy this year.

The Panhellenic Socialist Movement government is imposing gargantuan cuts, as part of its deal with the International Monetary Fund and European Union, which bailed-out the Greek state last year. Just this week, EU and IMF officials dictated that the Greek government must raise €50 billion from privatisations over the next four years - equal to 22% of the Greek economy.

Not accidentally, the date of the strike allowed workers to let off steam the day after the government passed a bill deregulating the so-called 'closed professions'. Last summer, the 'opening up' of just one profession - that of truck driving - resulted in wildcat strikes, which the army were eventually brought in to crush.

Nonetheless, rank-and-file workers demonstrated in sixty cities and towns across Greece this week. In Athens, thirty thousand marched to the Greek parliament, where they chanted "Don't obey the rich, fight back", and faced the usual police violence, which was met by resistance from many demonstrators.

Workers are sabotaging ticket machines
With inflation at 5.9%, and the wages needed to cover living costs rapidly falling, there is a developing movement of people refusing to pay the spiralling costs of hospital fees, public transport and road tolls. Hundreds have taken part in the occupation of toll roads, while last Friday, a hundred transport workers taped up the ticket machines in Athens metro stations.

If the protest movement is to be successful in overturning the government's 'reforms' - dictated from afar by international financial elite - they must completely break from the reformist unions, who aim to disarm any real challenge to the profit system. Like some groups of workers in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East, they must start to build their own organisations from the bottom up, and ultimately they need to put forward their own programme for a reconstruction of society in the interest of their own class.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Oil, Libya and the New Threat to US Imperialism

Libya accounts for 2% of the world's oil output
A couple of major news stories popped up on my laptop screen this morning. First, 'Libya protests: Gaddafi embattled by opposition gains'. Second, 'Oil prices climb to fresh highs'. Of course, the two are very much interlinked.

The Libyan dictator seems to be dug in for one last stand against the opposition. Despite sending in the army, southern African and Italian mercenaries, and even the air force, Gaddaffi appears to have lost control over much of the North African nation, which he has ruled since 1969.

Libya accounts for 2% of the world's oil output, but the oil price has climbed by far more than that since the working class-led uprising began. An article in yesterday's Financial Times partly explained this discrepancy:
"The reservoirs beneath its desert landscape yield crudes that are easily refined into diesel and petrol and also low in sulphur, making them cleaner to burn. Opec, of which Libya is a member, has adequate spare supplies to replace the country's lost production – but the quality is mostly inferior."
But the potential threat of the rebellious 'contagion' spreading to Saudi Arabia is arguably more significant. "No one knows where this ends", a director at Barclays Capital told the New York Times. "A couple of weeks ago it was Tunisia and Egypt, and it was thought this can be contained to North Africa and the resource-poor Middle East countries. But now with protests in Bahrain, that’s the heart of the gulf, and it’s adding to anxieties."

Not coincidentally, Saudi King Abdullah returned to his country yesterday, following three months in the United States and Morocco, where the eighty-seven year old has been undergoing urgent medical treatment. Upon arrival, he announced a $36 billion social spending programme. Such measures are transparently intended to head off a revolutionary upsurge in the world's number one oil producing nation.

Despite the recent upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt, the US retains a large element of control over both nations. Though Ben Ali was forced out of Tunisia, US placemen remain in power. Similarly, Hosni Mubarak has been replaced with a military junta in Egypt, and the US has long-standing ties with that country's armed forces. This is not the case in Libya, however.

On coming to power over forty years ago, Gaddaffi portrayed himself as an anti-imperialist figurehead who would pursue policies independently on the old colonial master Italy, and the newer regional powers of the US and Israel. He nationalised US-owned oil exploration projects, and threw the Americans out of a strategically important air force base. By the 1980s, the Reagan administration was in full attack mode, painting Gaddaffi as the "the mad dog of the Middle East", shooting down Libyan planes and ships, and bombing Tripoli and Benghazi. It was in this context that the plane bombing took place above Lockerbie in Scotland.

However, falling oil prices drew Gaddaffi back into the orbit of US imperialism in the late 1990s. He used the occasion of the 9/11 attacks to openly start talks with the Americans and the British, and he was officially welcomed to the fold by Tony Blair in 2004. Since then, Blair has been linked with Gaddaffi on several occasions, most notably in smoothing the way for oil deals with BP when he was Prime Minister, and representing US investment bank JPMorgan Chase after leaving office.

Libyan oil is now very much back on tap for the west
No doubt, American military and secret services have penetrated Libyan authorities to some extent, but they have not had the time to cultivate the kind of relationships the US continues to enjoy with the Egyptian and Tunisian elites. Also, there will be no reliable 'safe pair of hands' in the opposition, because organised opposition barely exists in Libya. If and when Gaddaffi loses his grip on power, it is difficult to imagine who will take over.

Bearing all this in mind, it's a very worrying sign that Barack Obama implicitly threatened a military intervention last night, when he commented that he'd asked his administration "to prepare the full range of options that we have to respond to this crisis". Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had already asserted that: Washington would examine “all possible options” and “everything will be on the table”.

If some combination of western forces are unleashed on Libya, it will be to guarantee that the oil keeps flowing to Europe. Though it would no doubt be dressed up as a humanitarian intervention, humanitarian concerns would be an irrelevance compared to the dollar, and attempts to maintain US hegemony in the area. The international working class remains the only force that could defeat western imperialism, and organise a sane society on the basis of human need, not profit.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Death Of Postmodernism

International working class solidarity sounds the death knell for PoMo
"What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government." - Francis Fukuyama (1992) 

“The gendarmes asked me to calm the demonstrators down and ask them to go home. But I told them that we have the right to demonstrate our exasperation. Destitution and poverty are going to starve us. Our families don’t even have anything to eat. How then can we not protest and demonstrate?” - Mahmoud Zegoune, spokesman of the Hassi-Messaoud unemployed workers committee, Algeria (February 2011)

Following the liquidation of the Eastern European 'Communist' regimes and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Western elites arrogantly bragged that they had triumphed, and that 'free market' economic systems would now dominate, together with their supposed corollary - liberal democracy. The establishment's new favourite philosopher, Francis Fukuyama, brazenly declared "the end of history". For Fukuyama, the important economic questions were settled, and the only conceivable political progress would be the introduction of elections to states with dictatorships. His remark was the most famous expression of postmodern thought, only rivalled - from a victim's perspective - by Kurt Cobain's "oh well, whatever, nevermind".

Indeed, 'whatever' was perhaps the key word for getting through post-Cold War, postmodern times. At its early 2000s peak, the word became a way of trying to shrug off personal and political disaster. Your girlfriend had dumped you? Whatever, you'd find another one. You'd lost your job? Whatever, you'd find another one. Iraq had been invaded? Well, it was crazy but...whatever, it was the other side of the world. Probably.

A postmodern hairstyle, as shown on a rare subversive comedy of the age
In this credit-fuelled media haze, nothing really seemed to matter any more. Although the ruling class was carrying out brutal assaults on the overwhelming majority of the planet's population, it seemed survivable. So no, there was no need to fight back. And after the 'grunge' and 'alternative' musical movements of the early to mid nineties, there was no need to dissent artistically either. Cultural expression became incredibly reactionary - a backwards morass of neatly packaged, easily consumable dross. It was either the blandness, the 'shock', or the 'randomness'; pay your money, take your choice, and shut the hell up.

In the art scene, the formaldehyde pickled sharks of Damien Hirst and the unmade beds of Tracey Emin were considered cutting edge. And yet they were blunt edges, cutting nothing. In comedy, 'gross-out' humour made a splash, and later on the likes of Frankie Boyle and Jimmy Carr started poking fun at the dispossessed and disenfranchised. In music, with collective advancement ruled out, the 'gangsta' lifestyle embodied by 50 Cent was celebrated, while emos suffered individualist angst, and Simon Cowell promoted another cover of a boyband. In film, we saw the 'shot-for-shot remake' and 'action films' with no story whatsoever on the one hand, and impenetrable 'indie flicks' like Synecdoche, New York on the other.

Meaning? There was no meaning. There could be no meaning. History was over, and if you weren't happy, you were the problem, not society.

Though there were important differences between ruling class propaganda and the era's cultural reflections, they were both rooted in the prevailing state of society. This had a chloroforming, depressing effect on the general public. Of course, there were always critical voices, and these voices were able to gain a small airing via the mushrooming internet. But the mainstream media continued to promote the postmodern creeds of consumption and emptiness.

However, ideology could be no match for the force of material reality. Following the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the 'credit crunch', the Wall Street Crash of 2008, the recessions, and then the savage government cutbacks, apathy was no longer a defensible strategy. Playing dead could now kill.

Early to mid 2010 saw union bureaucrat-dominated skirmishes in Greece, Portugal, Ireland and elsewhere. But by late 2010, lorry drivers nearly paralysed the French economy, Spanish air traffic controllers were frogmarched to work at gunpoint, and students rioted in London. The start of this year has brought the Arab pro-democracy movement, which has removed dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, and threatened those in Libya and many other North African nations. Inspired by this, and facing slashing cuts to their own living standards, workers in Wisconsin, USA - the very belly of the imperialist beast - are rallying to defend their livelihoods.

Though I've mostly been talking in the past tense, the postmodern trends haven't disappeared. But history is being made once more; this time by oppressed working class people. There is the beginning of a sense that 'anything is possible'. This will inevitably deepen, and filter through to philosophy and culture. Postmodernism isn't yet dead, but it has been struck a deathblow, and this is a draft of its obituary.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Class Anger Erupts In Wisconsin, USA

The scene at the occupied state Capitol
The immense social power of the American working class has largely lain dormant since the 1980s, when President Reagan crushed the PATCO air traffic controllers amongst others in struggle. The leadership of the AFL-CIO union has brokered deal after deal in favour of the capitalist class in the intervening years, leaving many workers disillusioned and demoralised. Now - compelled by the social crisis and inspired by the Arabic pro-democracy revolutionaries - the sleeping beauty is awakening.

Over the last few days, protesters in Wisconsin have responded to Governor Scott Walker's attack on public sector workers by assembling in their tens of thousands at Madison, the state's capital city. Walker is trying to push through a bill which would severely limit workers' power of collective bargaining, as well as effectively cutting their pay by between 8 and 20%, dependent on occupation.

Infuriated at finding themselves one fifth poorer than they were, thousands of teachers have taken part in mass 'sick-ins' - wildcat strikes by another name - that have shut down public schools in Madison and surrounding areas. Teachers and students have joined the demonstration at the state Capitol, while rallies have been held on college campuses. At a rally of hundreds at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, History professor Joel Sipress told the crowd:
"We all know that this is part of a broader assault on the ability of working people in this state and this country to have decent, humane lives. The same people who want to strip public workers of their rights - they’re the same people who want to say to all of us ‘it is a sink-or-swim society.’ We will not allow Wisconsin to become a state where the working people live off the scraps that are thrown to them by the economic elite."
President Barack Obama's latest change you can believe in is to cut $1 trillion in federal spending on social programmes, a very similar amount to the initial banker bailout he supported as a presidential candidate. At a state level, many budgets are facing the squeeze, and Governor Walker's counterparts in North Carolina and Michigan, plus New York's 'independent' billionaire Mayor Bloomberg have also announced savage anti-working class measures over the last week.

It is just a week since western ally and dictator Hosni Mubarak was driven from power by the Egyptian masses, an example now being followed in Bahrain, Libya and even Iraq. The impact of this revolutionary upsurge has not been lost on the Wisconsinite demonstrators, who have made their own Cairo-style protest camp in and around the Capitol, and have made placards bearing slogans such as like 'Walk like an Egyptian" and "Mubarak For Governor".

The comparison between the US-backed elites of the Arab world and the elite political class in the US itself is a sound one. Though the states face large deficits, they could be paid off by taking ten per cent of the wealth controlled by the richest four hundred Americans.

Though it is extremely early days for this new international working class movement, it is now abundantly clear that it is not "the end of history", as ruling class philosophers had hoped after the fall of the Berlin Wall. History is being made right now.

The Fighter (15)

The film's strong emotional impact encourages the use of many boxing puns...
Directed by David O. Russell
Written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson and Keith Dorrington
On general release from 2nd February 2011

When I reviewed The King's Speech the other week, I said something to the effect that yes, extremely rich people do have their issues, but their wealth insulates them from their full impact. Well, if you struggled to sympathise with George VI, King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions, this could be the film for you.

I'm delighted to say that The Fighter continues the recent trend (The Town, Conviction) in treating the struggles of those in the lower layers of the working class with the respect and the seriousness they sorely need. Based on the real life story of boxing brothers 'Irish' Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund, The Fighter examines scraps in and out of the ring, in the post-industrial city of Lowell, Massachusetts.

As the film begins, Micky (Mark Wahlberg) is lacking confidence after three consecutive defeats. When Micky belatedly discovers he's giving away twenty lbs to his next opponent, he has to take the fight to get paid, but takes a ferocious beating. Under pressure from new girlfriend Charlotte (Amy Adams) to sack past it crack addict Dicky (Christian Bale) as trainer and incompetant mother (Melissa Leo) as manager, Micky ends-up drifting away from the sport. But when Dicky is sent to jail for pimping, resisting arrest and assaulting the cops he can still outrun, Micky decides to take adopt a more professional outlook, and eventually earns himself a world title shot.

The film's strong emotional impact encourages the use of many boxing puns, all of which I will avoid. In many ways, it echoes boxing flicks such as Rocky, but resists the over-the-top fight scenes of Sylvester Stallone's franchise, and has the benefit of actually being true, to a large extent at least. Wahlberg and Bale's characters are well drawn, allowing both to flesh out the scripts with excellent performances. Bale in particular turns in the kind of performance that again marks him out of one his generation's few outstanding actors. Adams and Leo fare less well as no-nonsense barmaid and ferocious matriarch respectively, and this is at least in part because their characters are more like caricatures. Neither faces any real choices or turning points, and so the actresses seem to strike the same note throughout. This is where I get the sense that, though David O. Russell and his writing team are artistically interested in lower class life, they do not fully understand the mechanics of it.

The dilapidated city of Lowell is an important supporting character, and it is the basis of all the behaviour witnessed on screen. In the 19th and early 20th century, it was an important centre of textiles manufacture. But Lowell was long past its prime by the time Micky and Dicky hit theirs. Poverty and decay was everywhere, and the emptiness gave rise to the usual drug problems. Though this is portrayed in a matter of fact way, Russell does not explore any it in any depth. Similarly, though he respects the resilience and stoicism of Lowell's people, he seems to be making a virtue of a brutal necessity.

Still, The Fighter is very enjoyable, as were The Town and Conviction. As the social crisis continues unabated, and - perhaps more importantly - working people start to fight back, we can hope to see this mini cinematic movement continue, and even deepen.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The 'Big Society' and Class Struggle

David Cameron has "decided that your local Waterstones is better than your local library"
The political fraud that is David Cameron's 'Big Society' has been grabbing a lot of mainstream media attention over the last couple of weeks. The frenzy was kicked off when 'Big Society Tsar' Lord Wei cut his hours, after discovering that working for free on three days each weeks was not compatible with "having a life". But what is the class significance of the Coalition's crusade?

Wei - a 'social entrepreneur' - was 'created' a Tory peer by Cameron in May last year. He started work advising on the 'Big Society', but "at the last moment it turned out to be unpaid". He committed himself to first two and then three days per week, but "in the autumn I asked to go back to two days". Apparently, he had to balance "...making a living, seeing my family, and helping to change society."

Of course, that is the central dilemma that all wannabe 'Big Society' volunteers face, and it's much more difficult when you haven't got a lot of cash behind you. For much of the media, this was a bit of joke, and Labour supporters like Polly Toynbee and the Daily Mirror used it to make easy political capital.

But the 'Big Society' goes beyond party politics. Ok, so a Tory (backed by Lib Dems) has introduced it, but it has come about because we've reached a certain point in the class struggle. Even under Labour, charities and voluntary organisations were used to provide a poor imitation of services that people might need, but that the capitalist class had decided were unprofitable. Now under the Tories and in a time of recession, charities and voluntary groups find themselves even more starved of funding - because people who would normally donate are themselves starved of funding. At the same time, they are asked to do more with less resources, because in times of recession there is much more to do.

The central contradiction in the 'Big Society' plan - if you can call it a plan - is that the government is currently forcing through unprecedented cuts in public spending: about £83 billion according to last autumn's Comprehensive Spending Review. £18 billion of that is benefit cuts, so this means that £65 billion per year of stuff that used to be done won't be done in the future. In comparison, the 'Big Society Bank' will be offering loans from a pool of less than a billion per year.

As many national government departments and local councils continue to deliberate where exactly the axe will fall, campaigners have started rallying against cuts. Despite Cameron's suggestion that library users could take over lost services, pro-library campaigners have been particularly active so far, and thousands took part in co-ordinated protest actions on 5th February.

Pullman: "...the market in the end will destroy everything we know"
The pro-library campaigns have won support from many prominent authors. Philip Pullman - writer of the His Dark Materials trilogy - summed up the entire 'Big Society' hoopla when he asked Oxford protesters:
"Does [the prime minister] think the job of a librarian is so simple, so empty of content that anyone can step up and do it for a thank-you and a cup of tea? Does he think that all a librarian does is to tidy the shelves? And who are these volunteers? Who are these people whose lives are so empty, whose time spreads out in front of them like the limitless steppes of central Asia, who have no families to look after, no jobs to do, no responsibilities of any sort?"
Pullman went on to observe that: "...old Karl Marx had his finger on the heart of the matter when he pointed out that the market in the end will destroy everything we know, everything we thought was safe and solid. It is the most powerful solvent known to history. "Everything solid melts into air," he said. "All that is holy is profaned."

This is the new normal. These services are never coming back as paid jobs. With financial aristocrats gorging themselves on state payouts for the crisis they triggered, the capitalist class has simply decided that your local Waterstones is better than your local library. If you want to keep that library - and a myriad of other services essential to human dignity - you must work to keep them open without pay. If you can't do that, cherished buildings will become derelict, or they'll be bulldozed for car parks, or a new Tesco.

For communists, the 'Big Society' blather is dripping with irony. We envision a world where people do indeed work for free, to improve their communities. However, in a capitalist society, where the overwhelming majority of the population struggle to make ends meet, 'spare time' for volunteering is almost non-existent, once leisure (necessary for our recovery from paid work) is taken into account.

The real Big Society is growing in the Arab world, where working class people are taking on dictators. The real Big Society is growing in the UK, where people are getting ever more angry about the scale of Cameron's cuts. The real Big Society is growing in our minds with every passing second. The fight to save your services is inseparable from the wider class struggle.

This article also appears in the March issue of The Commune.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Al Baker & The Dole Queue - Causes and Cures

Call it 'troubacore', call it 'riot folk', call it whatever you will. Manchester's Al Baker and compadres have perfected the knack of spinning rousing yarns which could make you want to change the world. Or make you want to change the world even more, if you're already of a rebel persuasion.

The sound of Baker's second full length album - following 2006's On The Use Of Jackboots -  is best described using the adjective suggested in the press release: "raucous". No doubt his followers - accumulated around the activist scene and at gigs around the country - will have expected nothing less.

Right from the start of the anti-religion opener Thank God I'm An Atheist, Baker's intelligence, wit and tenderness shines through lyrics such as "You can talk to me if you need to know there's someone there/I'll sing you a love song they way you'd say a prayer". This very much continues on the accordion-driven tale of Mary (she's "quite contrary", by the way), who celebrates free love because "any boy who'd think that binding fingers with a ring has anything to do with love is quite absurd". The subject matter of Granddad Was An Anarchist should be quite obvious, and it touchingly includes the line "In case of revolution, I'll break some glass for you".

The Psychopomp Romp (Charon's Wager) is probably the first song I've heard laying blame for the current social crisis at the door of the bankers, but don't worry, financial jargon is eschewed in favour of a morality tale you can do more than tap your foot and nod to. Storytime is a very different, stripped-down ballad, reflecting on how childhood innocence gives way to knowledge of real life in this messed up society.

Other highlights include an excellent, more optimistic reworking version of old folk standard The Minstrel Boy, and the heartfelt heartache on Thoughts Of You.

Like recent tourmate The Ruby Kid, Baker's lyrical approach is deceptively simple, for all his skill. In his own words, he "...wanted to make a record that made modern politics personal. Every song on Causes and Cures is about something that happened to me or someone I know very well, and the incredible musicians I got to work with provide the best and loudest context to tell those stories that I could wish for". That all comes across very well on the album, every track of which resounds with yearning for a life worth dancing to.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Utopia: A New Age Of Democracy

Ask a communist what they think about democracy, and you're likely to get an answer similar to the one Mohandas Gandhi allegedly gave when he was asked for his opinion of western civilisation - "I think it would be a very good idea." And yet communists are often thought to favour a dictatorship, similar to those ruled by Lenin, Stalin, Mao and others who wrapped their state terror in the red flag. As I stated in my 'What Is Communism?' article last month, such dictators "advocated and organised state control of production and distribution, which has nothing to do with communism, and has only dragged its name through the mud."

A lot of the confusion is bound up with Marx's use of the term "dictatorship of the proletariat", which became dictatorship over the working class in the cases I've just mentioned. The term originated in a letter Marx wrote to a sympathetic journalist, which was quoted in the New York Times, as follows:
“Now, as for myself, I do not claim to have discovered either the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me, bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this struggle between the classes, as had bourgeois economists their economic anatomy. My own contribution was (1) to show that the existence of classes is merely bound up with certain historical phases in the development of production; (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; [and] (3) that this dictatorship, itself, constitutes no more than a transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.”
In other words, the "dictatorship of the proletariat" was to be the period where the working class itself seized political power, and exercised it in its own interests, as a necessary stage in abolishing class society and establishing full communism.

But what would this mean in practice? Following the Paris Commune of 1871, both Marx and Engels were certain that the Commune had blazed a trail for other workers to follow. Engels declared that detractors should "Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat." He explained that:
“...the Commune made use of two infallible expedients. In this first place, it filled all posts — administrative, judicial, and educational — by election on the basis of universal suffrage of all concerned, with the right of the same electors to recall their delegate at any time. And, in the second place, all officials, high or low, were paid only the wages received by other workers. The highest salary paid by the Commune to anyone was 6,000 francs. In this way an effective barrier to place-hunting and careerism was set up, even apart from the binding mandates to delegates [and] to representative bodies”.
Anarchists dispute the need for such a transitional stage, and argue that "the state and capitalism must be dismantled simultaneously." In my view, this is sometimes due to an entirely understandable (given the anti-Marxist propagandising in the capitalist media and education system) misconception of what "dictatorship of the proletariat" would mean. At other times, it can be put down to balking at the word 'state' for the post-revolutionary self-organisation and self-defence of the working class.

If this all sounds a bit dry and theoretical, maybe it is at this stage. For me, the important point is that the new forms of society will necessarily develop from the forms of struggle which overthrow capitalist society. Since we have not reached that point, we cannot accurately predict exactly what they will be. However, horizontal self-organisation does seem to be the 'natural' way of organising resistance, once more liberal options have been exhausted. It has been happening in Tahrir Square, Egypt over the last few weeks, as part of the movement to overthrow the Mubarak regime.

Whatever precise form it takes, democracy (from the Ancient Greek for rule by the common people) is and must be in opposition to both the thinly-disguised oligarchies of the western world, and the kleptocracies of the majority world.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

The King's Speech (12A)

The director asks us to sympathise with "that poor man", King George VI
Directed by Tom Hooper
Written by David Seidler
On general release from 7th January 2011

Talk of The King's Speech has given a new meaning to the word 'hyperbole' over the last few months. Even nearly a month after its general release date, it is still taking in millions at the box office, drawing in many who wouldn't normally visit the cinema, and the older generations in particular. In no small way, it was given a boost by the twelve Oscar nominations it received last week, which came on top of sixteen awards it had already won. The time has come for a critical evaluation.

As almost everyone must know by now, the focus of the film is the struggle of 'Bertie' (Colin Firth) - the Duke of York and future King of the United Kingdom and the British Dominions - to overcome his stammer, and therefore his dread of public speaking. As the film progresses from the death of his father King George V (Michael Gambon), to the abdication of his brother Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), it becomes increasingly clear that 'Bertie' will have to address his subjects with increasing frequency, and on increasingly important occasions. With World War Two looming, 'Bertie' tackles his fear with the help of Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), urged on by his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter), known to most us as the now late mother of the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.

The relationship between 'Bertie' and Logue is definitely the film's strongest suit. Firth and Rush are fine actors, and an often witty, yet sensitive script allows both plenty of opportunities to shine. Firth plays the royal as an uptight man whose stiff upper lip is prone to the occasional quiver, whilst Rush is brilliant when he punctures the pretensions of his client, and of the British establishment in general. In the end, a friendship is formed, based on mutual respect.

People who stammer will appreciate many of the physical and mental challenges that 'Bertie' goes through. Firth has the speech disorder down pat, and his performance is therefore pure Oscar bait. At my screening, it was clear that the man in front of me stammers, and he certainly seemed to recognise some of the blocking and word avoidance that was so perfectly brought to life by Firth.

On the other hand, it must be considered that while 'Bertie' was clearly under some pressure to improve his fluency, 'ordinary' people who stammer face far greater struggles in their day to day lives. In real life, Winston Churchill (here played quite badly by a miscast Timothy Spall), had the monarch's dysfluency edited out of broadcasts. However, 99.99% of those who stammer will not be so insulated by great riches, and suffer serious discomfort on a daily basis, often with a major impact on their own careers and social lives. For these reasons, The King's Speech is far from being the My Left Foot of stammering.

With that in mind, The King's Speech is at its weakest when the director wants us to feel sorry for this emperor, who ruled over around a quarter of the world's population during his reign. At one stage, 'Bertie' is compared to an "indentured servant", a comparison far more fitting for many in colonial India, for example. Later on, this stupendously wealthy individual is described as "that poor man". When 'Bertie' describes how his elder brother teased him, and his father bullied him, it is possible to sympathise on an almost theoretical level, but no more than that.

Another major problem is the film's conventional line on the events of the 1930s. It doesn't seem to 'make up' any history, as much as it parrots the myths peddled by the ruling class since World War Two began. The seismic events of the last Great Depression, the Spanish Revolution/Civil War, and the rise of fascism in Europe barely warrant a mention, even though they would surely have concerned the rulers of the British Empire far more than a stammering figurehead.

When 'Bertie' finally conquers his terror and speaks to the nation, we are supposed to believe that he becomes a "symbol of resistance" to the people conscripted into an army defending that Empire around the world, and those dodging bombing raids in working class areas. When Edward relinquishes the throne, he is shown listening quietly to his brother's speech, when in fact he was courting leading members of the Third Reich, and offering himself up as a potential puppet king. The cult of Churchill is boosted by his depiction as a far-sighted pragmatist who knew that Edward would fall due to his pronounced Nazi sympathies. In reality, Churchill led attempts to keep Edward on the throne, despite the former's worries that German expansion would cut across British elite interests.

In short, we are expected to buy the idea that 'Bertie' was an ordinary man from a family like ours in many ways, when he was actually from a family that waded in the blood, sweat and tears of the global poor, and hoped that Hitler would bring the working class of Europe to heel so Britain wouldn't have to. There is something deeply troubling about the media buzz around a film that invites us to side with the super rich, in an era where the super rich are once more waging brutal and unrelenting war against everyone else.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Task Facing The Egyptian Working Class

Up to two million Egyptians attended yesterday's monster demonstration
There is no doubt that people facing tumbling living standards around the world have been inspired by the demonstrators' sudden loss of fear. Images such as the young girl leading chants atop her father's shoulders, and the former cop beating his old uniform with a shoe, will certainly last long in my memory.

The secular nature of the uprising has given the lie to the idea that Western stooges are preventing Islamism from gaining a stronghold in the Middle East. As Egypt's Muslims prepared for 'Angry Friday' in their mosques last week, there were reports of Christians standing guard. The events of the last couple of weeks have proved - if proof were needed - that social class, not religious or ethnic identity, is the fundamental division in all modern societies.

Though much remains in flux, for now it seems that the United States has decided to take the opposite tack to the Tunisian case, and stand by their man. Hosni Mubarak has been a loyal servant of US imperialism for the last thirty years, which is more than can be said for the none the less thoroughly bourgeois Mohamed ElBaradei, who occasionally contradicted American propaganda in his former role as Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Before Mubarak announced his intention to stay on as President until the autumn elections last night, his regime had been in day-long talks with representatives of the Obama administration.

Mubarak's appointment of Omar Suleiman as Vice President was likely dictated by Washington. Recent WikiLeaks cables have shown Suleiman to be a ruthless operator, with strong links to US policy since at least 1993. In summarising the cables, Jane Mayer of the New Yorker has told of how Suleiman “was the CIA’s point man in Egypt for renditions - the covert program in which the CIA snatched suspects from around the world and returned them to Egypt and elsewhere for interrogation, often under brutal circumstances".

Mubarak is protected by the army, who are aided and equipped by the US
Suleiman's ties to the Egyptian army are also important, in the context of the military's pledge “not to resort to the use of force against our great people" in the current turmoil. An unnamed US official told Associated Press that the military leadership is allowing protestors to “wear themselves out”. Behind the scenes, generals are preparing to issue orders when they judge that the time is right. Already this afternoon, an army statement has called for protesters to go home and return to 'normal life'. In the past couple of hours, plain clothes police in the guise of pro-Mubarak demonstrators have attacked anti-Mubarak demonstrators on horseback. Massive state repression will be necessary to keep Mubarak in power for six more months.

But whichever combination of Mubarak, his cronies, the army, and the official opposition holds power in the coming period, the state's main goal will be to suppress the working class, and restore profitability, while safeguarding American interests. As much as Mubarak is personally despised by Egyptian workers, it is their immediate and long term material interests that drive them forward into battle. As Jack Ray observes:
"...a lack of political freedom is a terrible thing, but if you have to live with it, you live with it. On the other hand, something you absolutely can't live with, is lacking the ability to make a living. That directly affects your ability to get by, to exist, to live in the day to day. It's no coincidence that this is happening during an economic recession. Unemployment rises, prices rise, the value of wages falls, state assistance decreases. People see other people in the same situations, and the see the people running the country continuing to prosper (because they're always prospering!). The lack of freedom, the lack of right to get angry at these bastards starts to pick at you that much more. It overcomes your impulse to keep quiet, to keep your head down, to get on with your life. Then all it takes is the realisation that we have the power to change all this."
Over the coming weeks, months, and maybe years, the task facing Egypt's workers is therefore to advance a class-based programme, independently of any ruling class forces. Reports of wildcat strikes must be welcomed as a good start, while the reported founding of a new 'Egyptian Federation for Independent Unions' will be an extremely positive step, if the new Federation is to be controlled by its rank and file.

Egyptian workers will no doubt find allies in Tunisia, throughout the Arab world, and even across continents if their struggles bear fruit. The time really has come for workers of all nations to unite.

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