Thursday, January 26, 2012

Scottish Nationalism - A Challenge for the Radical Left

Not the real referendum ballot paper, but you get the point...
Yesterday, Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond used the occasion of Robert Burns' birthday to announce the question for the planned 2014 referendum: "Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?"

The use of the poet Burns - himself a fervent internationalist - portends the sort of cartoon 'Scottishness' that will no doubt form part of the pro-separation campaign. The other prong will be some sort of economic argument that 'independence' is in the national interest of Scotland. Marxists and many other radicals recognise that 'the national interest' is always official shorthand for the interests of the ruling class, yet many on what might be considered the radical left seem to be in favour of Scottish independence. In this article, I would like to ask why.

First though, let's look at what's at stake for different sections of the ruling class. The Scottish National Party represent the section of the Scottish elite which feels it would be better for them to negotiate with international financiers and supranational bodies as a separate entity to the rest of the United Kingdom. In an age where an email can be sent from Inverness to India in the blink of an eye, this is the absolute limit to what national 'independence' can mean. As an economics MA graduate and then later Royal Bank of Scotland energy consultant, Salmond no doubt has his eye on cashing in Scotland's North Sea oil reserves. It is likely that the Scottish working class will be promised a share of the loot should they vote yes in 2014, but like all modern ruling class politicians, he would fail to make good on any pledge to increase working class living standards.

For sure, oil and gas reserves play a large role in the opposition of the UK and Scottish Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem parties to separation. Westminster politicians also want to continue reaping the rewards for increased exploitation of the Scottish working class, not because they are Scottish, but because they are working class. The default stance of any central government is towards expansion - not reduction - of its borders, and indeed this is more or less why Scotland was subjugated by England. Importantly, the separation issue will also provide a useful distraction over the next couple of years, as both 'sides' do the bidding of the banks.

So much for the elites. But what about those who claim to be pro-worker, 'radical', 'socialist' or even 'communist', yet still support separation? Some - specifically those who ride the coattails of the elites - are trying to deceive Scottish workers. Those in the union bureaucracy, or high up in the fake left parties - the main ones north of the 'border' being the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and its breakaway Solidarity - are seeking to make their lives easier. For union tops, nationalism is a great diversion from the fact that the unions are entirely undemocratic, and that the bureaucracy makes sell-out after sell-out of its dues base. For those high profile fake left politicians, a key part of their role is to be a cheerleader/apologist for the union fat cats. And it's plain to see why the SSP's former Members of the Scottish Parliament might relish the opportunity to be bigger fish in a more powerful assembly.

Scottish nationalism is less progressive than Kurdish struggles for democratic rights
Amongst many genuine non-Scottish radical lefts, there seems to be a sort of shrug, followed by a 'well, if they want it, they should have it'. And there's something in this, because of course if large numbers of Scottish people genuinely yearned for independence, and then it was denied by Westminster, that would a terrible act of repression, possibly involving military and para-military force. But when you look at polls of Scots, that fervour simply isn't there. The latest sample - in a week when pro-separation propaganda has been in full force - actually shows Scots being more or less evenly divided on the issue, but this is a huge jump forward from previous figures, which have normally showed a comfortable majority against.

In a way, this level of ambivalence and apathy amongst the general population is hardly surprising. After all, there's another recession on, and most people are more worried about how they're going to make ends meet than constitutional/social questions. And it isn't as if white Scottish people feel like Kurds for example, having their ethnic identity checked and repressed at every turn. On the contrary - an ossified version of Scotland's clan era traditions is constantly recreated. People are going to vote for separation if they feel it will make them better off. But as radicals we surely know that this would be one more ruling class illusion. So non-Scottish comrades, why support Scottish 'independence'? Who benefits?

The same question also goes to Scots whom I would happily call comrade on every other issue. Why do you feel Scottish separation would be a good thing for the Scottish working class, and the working classes of other nations? In this age of austerity, wouldn't it better if workers of the world united against all ruling elites? Or to put it another way, wouldn't you rather we fought side by side for a world where - in the male-centric language of Burns' time - "Man to Man, the world o'er, Shall brothers be"?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Year of Revolution in Egypt

Early signs of new Arab Spring in Tahrir Square?
It is January 25th 2012, and Egyptians have taken to the streets in a mass demonstration of both joy at their ousting of Hosni Mubarak, and anger at the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) regime. It is the anniversary of the first mass demonstration in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Many thousands have either camped overnight, or arrived later in the plaza, which was the symbolic epicentre of the anti-Mubarak revolution, and the scene of fierce battles in the twelve months since.

Hailed as 'neutral' upholders of law and order by anti-working class forces when Mubarak fell, SCAF have steadily revealed themselves to be every bit as much an enemy of the Egyptian masses as the departed dictator. Within weeks, they had drawn-up a reactionary new constitution, and effectively banned strikes and other demonstrations. In this, the generals were defending their own business interests as owners of factories and land throughout the country. They were also executing the will of the United States government, which turned its affections from Mubarak when his fate was sealed, and started showering 'foreign aid' on the new Egyptian junta.

Largescale strike action - a central though generally underrated element of the February revolution - returned in the autumn of last year, especially in the period leading up to November's bogus elections of pro-regime parties. This reflected both mistrust of the army and the unmet material need for well-paying jobs, which was the major root cause of the 2011 rebellions.

Despite the recent third round of elections, the upheaval continues. As CrimethInc reports:
"One year later, elections are entering their third round while the military still holds political power. They also hold over 12,000 political prisoners, who are being hastily sentenced in military trials. The streets of Cairo are filled with graffiti and the residue of political protests that became street fights. Walls made of huge concrete slabs block roads where the military and police faced off with protesters only months earlier; the marble sidewalks remain torn up where street militants recently improvised ammunition. Some neighborhood assemblies have transformed into “popular committees in the defense of the revolution,” working on issues ranging from basic services to local governance. Meanwhile, over 100 independent trade unions were formed, breaking the state’s former monopoly on organized labor."
The social contradictions that pushed millions of Egyptians on last January and February have not been resolved. On the contrary, they have grown. A massive new uprising is an inevitability, and it is merely a matter of time before a second revolutionary struggle breaks out.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sparks Facing Defeat As Unite Urges Contract Acceptance

The 'agreement' which Unite are now urging members to sign
The electricians who provided some of 2011's most militant workplace organising appear to be heading towards defeat, as their Unite union urges them to sign up for pay cuts of around a third.

Towards the end of last summer, electricians angry at the construction employers' proposed new Building Engineering Services National Agreement (BESNA) started their own rank-and-file initiative. A major driving force for this development was mistrust of the union's bureaucracy, and this perspective was confirmed when 'negotiator' Bernard McAulay described the Sparks movement as "cancerous" in an email to fellow executive member Gail Cartmail.

The Sparks' grassroots organisation was an extremely positive step, and for a while it seemed like the Sparks were pointing towards a new form of workplace organisation for the UK. Weekly workplace demos and roadblocks plus links with Occupy and student protesters exerted much pressure on the union tops. However, the electricians remained within the confines of Unite in so much as they allowed people like McAulay to 'negotiate' in their name, and set the terms of official ballots.

For its part, since McAulay's statement, Unite has done its best to get close to Sparks, the better to strangle their struggle. McAulay and Cartmail dragged their feet over a strike ballot, and when one was finally called, it was only for Balfour Beatty. The company are the largest of the seven BESNA firms, but three quarters of those facing 'sign or be sacked' ultimatums were not covered by the ballot. In the end, electricians voted for strike action by a huge margin, but Unite cancelled the strike as soon as Balfour Beatty threatened a legal challenge.

Still, on Wednesday 7th December - the day the strike was supposed to have been - electricians hit Balfour Beatty sites around the country, and they were joined by others taking unofficial measures. But then Christmas came, and the latest ultimatum was only weeks away, with no major escalation planned.

On 9th January, the latest - and likely final - deadline passed. Since then, Unite have announced their attention to reballot Balfour Beatty workers. This is obviously too little, too late, and no doubt McAulay and co. will be delighted at reports that between eighty and ninety per cent of electricians have now signed their contracts. Unite are now urging the remainder to sign up, on the basis that this is the only defence against redundancy.

This is all quite deliberate. Union tops - or "union fat cats" as some Sparks have dubbed them - are class enemies of their members. If a grassroots worker rebellion is to have a chance of succeeding, it must be so huge and so organised as to make the union leadership irrelevant. Despite the bravery and dedication of the Sparks, it is little surprise that so many electricians are now reconciling themselves to a drastically lower quality of life, and signing BESNA. After all, it is better than the dole queue, and only a fully worked-out grassroots plan of action could have convinced that eighty to ninety per cent that it is worth keeping up the fight.

The struggle is still ongoing, and delegates at a recent meeting voted for an indefinite site walkout should one worker be sacked for not signing BESNA, so it is too early for post mortems. And those directly involved in the fight will be best placed to point out tactical errors once the dust has settled. Nevertheless, though the establishment of a rank-and-file workers' committee is still a first in the UK fightback against twenty-first century austerity, it seems it will not be the turning point.

Click here for my analysis of why workers and union bosses are enemies.

Friday, January 20, 2012

The Commune Looks Forward to 2012

I'm more than a week late to the party, but the latest issue of The Commune is out, dedicated as ever to workers' self management and communism from below. It happens to include two articles from me (covering the Thatcher government's war on the Liverpool working class and an apparently successful peasant uprising in China). But there are many other reasons to give it a read!

As you might expect from a January edition, it has something of a looking back and looking ahead duality to it. As the editorial explains:
"[...] this month’s issue of The Commune features extensive discussion of the state of the anti-cuts movement but also how we can go beyond 'anticuts', including, for example, how healthcare can really best be run or how workplace struggles can push back the rule of capital."
Also well worth examining is Taimour Lay's look at the crisis in print media from the perspective of a radical journalist, and student Jack Staunton's analysis of the limited inquiry into London School of Economics' ties to the deposed Libyan regime.

All this is available for PDF download here, as well as from radical bookshops, social centres, and by emailing If you enjoy the paper, the price of a couple of pints a month would be of great use to us. Email us, or set up a standing order to The Commune, Co-op sc. 089299 ac. 65317440. The Commune has a Facebook group here.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Verbal Terrorists - The War On Terra

The album cover of the year award goes to...
This second album by young Newcastle-born hiphop collective Verbal Terrorists lived up to - and even surpassed - all the expectations I had before I had the privilege of hearing it. And those hopes were already pretty high, after hearing free download No Ifs No Buts and following Nobull's Twitter feed for a few months. But yes, I couldn't have anticipated such a high standard of lyrical flow, hybrid musical experimentation and production values from a crew still only just beginning to find their voice.

In case the album title leaves you in any doubt about the concept, the intro brings it home with excellent use of sampled news soundbites. Yup, we are in a war on land and over land, not with the terrorists dangled before our eyes by a compliant mass media, but with those at the top - the bankers, the big corporations and their political servants. And this war is poisoning and destroying the resources which future generations will need to survive. In different times and in lesser hands this could sound 'preachy', but over the next fourteen tracks VT combine poetic skill with often killer delivery, and political insight with intriguing, bouncy beats, as if Noam Chomsky and Vandana Shiva started working with...I don't of Dead Prez.

But more of him later. First song Don't Believe opens with gorgeous eastern style strings, and an analysis of how the media pushes a corporate agenda, featuring a fairly lengthy - but nonetheless welcome sample of Mr Chomsky himself. Dreamer encourages us to look beyond the limited horizons of our daily lives, before Mass Production manages to rubbish consumerism without - as so often happens - rubbishing the working class people who are attracted by that illusory lifestyle. Extra points for not coming off like hippy tossers when discussing this, because I have heard too many hippy tossers lecture me about consumption! After all, "my class has to suffer for this crap to function". See hippies? All you need is class politics!

VT in action
No Ifs No Buts follows, bumping along at a steady marching pace - perfect for a track clearly shaped by the autumn 2010 student movement and the early days of UK Uncut. "No ifs no buts/No fees no cuts/No more buying lies from these evil fucks" it stridently demands. What more do you need to know? Give Thanks is a sweet moment of appreciation for the people who make struggling worthwhile, before the title track sees Nobull and Fred link up with the legendary as they revisit the album's main theme in greater detail.'s sign off of "Verbal Terrorists/RBG [Revolutionary But Gangsta] worldwide/Dead Presidents/Solidarity is the movement/Git power or git out the way/Salute!" is a very nice touch, and no doubt the stuff that dreams are made for a group who surely grew up on DP's Let's Get Free.

Actually, there are too many highlights to detail. But Root Of All Evil reminds of the truest verse in the Bible, Let's Start A Riot ("What's a broken window when you're from a broken home? They've robbed our futures - all we stole was phones") is a rapid response to the fire of August, and Build Bridges Not Borders puts immigration myths to bed whilst arguing for working class unity.

In fact, the name of that last track neatly summarises what Verbal Terrorists are all about - building bridges between working class people, between philosophical themes and between musical genres and sub-genres. Accessible without being commercial, and clever whilst still being extremely relatable, The War On Terra is far from just being a politics lesson, and it brings to mind some of the best in the artistic spirit. This is inspiring stuff, and I hope many more people get to hear it.

The War On Terra is available to download from Verbal Terrorists' Bandcamp page.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Iron Lady (12A)

Streep is every inch Margaret Thatcher, but can't save the film from failure
I was nine in November 1990, when Margaret Thatcher announced her resignation. My mum was so delighted she came to the school gates to tell me the news. I let a few others know and within minutes there were hundreds of us leaping about and dancing, singing "Ding-dong! The Witch is Dead!" from The Wizard of Oz. So I suppose it's reasonably accurate to say she wasn't universally liked in my town.

There are lots of reasons why it is quite likely that she wasn't in yours either, and why your local cinema might not be full to bursting with Maggie fans despite the huge publicity campaign. As Seumas Milne reminded us this week:
"This is a politician, after all, who never won the votes of more than a third of the electorate; destroyed communities; created mass unemployment; deindustrialised Britain; redistributed from poor to rich; and, by her deregulation of the City, laid the basis for the crisis that has engulfed us 25 years later. Thatcher was a prime minister who denounced Nelson Mandela as a terrorist, defended the Chilean fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet, ratcheted up the cold war, and unleashed militarised police on trade unionists and black communities alike. She was Britain's first woman prime minister, but her policies hit women hardest, like Cameron's today."
With that in mind, it's easy to see why this "not a political film" "told from her point of view" is so wide of the mark. Thatcher was an intensely political figure, whose rise and fall was the result of complex social forces. But director Phyllida Lloyd retreats to an 'individual' view of Thatcher, in a sad philosophical echo of the latter's famous quote that "there is no such thing as society". Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how Thatcher would have told the story differently, and that points to anything but impartiality.

But for much of the film, the fictionalised modern day Thatcher character (Meryl Streep) doesn't even rise to the level of individual in any real sense. Instead she is merely a lonely, senile old woman who struggles with memories - especially of her dead husband Denis (Jim Broadbent) - and wishes her kids would visit more. Tellingly, it is these scenes which are the most powerful, because most of us know or have known an elderly widow like that, and on some level most of us probably fear ending up more or less alone like that in our last days.

Protesters make their feelings clear outside a screening in Chesterfield
Modern day Thatcher's shaky recollections of her political career form the basis of the remainder. But recollections is all they are. Thatcher shows no real signs of pleasure or sadness at the memories - except when they are to do with her family. So there is no sense of criticism at all. Whether it is her constituency selection meeting, taking on Labour leader Michael Foot across the dispatch box, or intimidating Michael Heseltine and Geoffrey Howe into acquiescence, Thatcher is portrayed as winning out over male opponents because of her passion for the ultra right neoliberal cause, and remarkable self-belief.

But as David Broder observed in his review:
"It constantly venerates her sense of purpose and determination, her sureness in her principles. In a conversation with her doctor, when he asks how she feels, she complains that people always talk about their inner feelings, not about what they think, or what action is necessary. In contrast to such behaviour, she wears her politics on her sleeve. So the film makes a strange kind of tribute to Thatcher: how can you champion someone’s sureness that their principles are right and indeed necessary, regardless of any judgement on whether they are indeed correct? If a politician takes their beliefs seriously, surely they would want others to take them seriously too, rather than merely celebrate the fact that these beliefs exist?"
How can you? can't! If - like many of today's super-rich - you admire Thatcher's policies, you will delight in her 'gumption', or whatever old-fashioned word you choose for her characteristics. If - like many others from different social layers - you despise her politics, you'll find yourself despairing as your hopes and aspirations are trampled under her heels. Worse still, you are simply not given an eloquent voice in the film. The Tory 'wets' were still Tories - if more cautious ones, Foot is shown as a hopeless dreamer, and working class dissent is limited to people throwing things in the Toxteth or Trafalgar Square riots, as miners get battered to the ground by those militarised police.

While class politics is almost entirely absent - except in terms of Thatcher's own rise from less than aristocratic origins - Lloyd's liberal feminism is pushed to the forefront. The director claims she was extremely pleased when Thatcher became the first female PM "through the door" of Number 10, and there is no reason to doubt this. For her, Thatcher's gender alone makes her worthy of praise, no matter how badly her policies affected the vast majority of women, and of course men and children too. In the end, her "global stardom" ended "in true tragic style", and Thatcher was brought down by her own sense of invincibility and nothing more.

Meryl Streep - perhaps the finest actress of her generation - utterly inhabits the skin of Thatcher, to such an extent that I often felt like I was watching a documentary. But if it was a documentary, it would otherwise be an extraordinarily bad one. With Thatcher's heirs continuing to wage bitter war on almost everyone but the elites she herself courted and so greatly aided, this is an utterly establishment-friendly, glossy portrait of a woman hated around the world. Anything else would have been rocking the boat at a time when working class anger is rising to even greater heights. No doubt The Iron Lady will be given pride of place in TV schedules on the day of her state funeral.

Until then, "I just can't feel sorry for her...I just can't", as my girlfriend commented as we left the theatre. After all, many widowed women Thatcher's age are shivering to death at this very moment because of her political legacy. We can be sure that 'the iron lady' will live in the greatest comfort until the moment she is melted down for scrap.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Ruling Class Plays Divide and Rule Over Abbott Tweet

Labour's Shadow Health Minister Diane Abbott is facing widespread media calls for her resignation this afternoon, after Tweeting that "'White people love playing 'divide & rule'". The instant furore illustrates much that is malevolent about the corporate media, and ironically enough provides a perfect example of how the ruling class plays divide and rule.

It is impossible for us to know exactly what Abbott meant by her Tweet. But the idea that she believes ALL white people love playing divide and rule - i.e. was racist - is preposterous. The term itself (and its alternative form - 'divide and conquer') has always been associated with the most powerful manipulators in society - people like Caesar, Napoleon and Machievelli. It refers to a tactic used by all those at the top of society, in order to prevent those at the bottom uniting and overthrowing them. It seems impossible that she was implying that poor working class white people in her Hackney North and Stoke Newington constituency love to play divide and rule.

Abbott made her comment in the context of a discussion on the Stephen Lawrence case, after Gary Dobson and David Norris were finally imprisoned for a racist murder that took place eighteen years ago. In the moments before her now deleted Tweet, Abbott had correctly criticised the "police incompetence" in pursuing Lawrence's killers. She then responded to black journalist Bim Adewunmi, who had complained about the media's patronising use of the terms "black community" and "black community leaders", by referring to "white people" "playing divide & rule".

Diane Abbott is a long-standing MP, and operates on what passes for the 'left' of the Labour Party. She will have made many political enemies over the years, and they are no doubt currently rejoicing at the opportunity to give her a kicking. It is worth recalling that no serious corporate media calls were made for Jeremy Clarkson to resign when he called for the mass slaughter of striking public sector workers. Of course, he is a creature of the right, and the majority of his political positions are well within the current bourgeois spectrum. But why are Abbott's comments controversial at all?

Firstly, because the social fact of ethnic divisions is generally kept swept under the carpet of liberal political discourse. When it is raised at all, it is usually cloaked in white privilege - i.e. 'why aren't black fathers more responsible?' and 'why don't black kids do better at school?' Here we have a black woman raising the bare fact that racist power structures still exist in modern society. The bourgeois consensus doesn't want to talk about that, so she is slapped down.

But more than that, by couching her Tweet in purely ethnic terms, Abbott has laid herself open to easy and convenient accusations of racism. If she is forced out of the shadow cabinet, and is replaced by another bland 'Blue Labour' drone, then many on the right will be pleased. Furthermore, by implicitly playing this up as black vs white, the media papers over the chasmic class divisions in society.

A far better statement would have been that "Ruling class people love playing 'divide & rule'". This was undoubtedly true when Caesar conquered Gaul, and it is true when Tories try to play private sector workers against those in the public sector. But it is also true when Barack Obama plays Sunni against Shia in Iraq, for example. All ruling elites use the tactic at all times, and they would be foolish not to - it can work for them. The problem is that there are ruling elites in existence - and that is why working class people of all ethnicities and nations must unite to overthrow them.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Wukan Peasant Victory Sets Stage For Chinese Turmoil

Villagers building barricades in an effort to prevent police attack
The villagers of Wukan in south-east China appear to have won a victory over the misnamed Communist Party regime, and prevented the sale of some communal land. This triumph is the result of direct action, direct democracy, and the community's ability to get the word out, in spite of government censorship. These factors will be crucial in 2012, as factory workers come into conflict with multinational corporations in the cities.

The struggle began in September, when Wukan residents became suspicious that the local government was in the process of selling common farming land to Country Garden - a company which builds residences for the rich. The 21st saw hundreds of villagers gathered at nearby Communist Party offices, to nonviolently protest against the sale. But as crowds grew and grew in numbers, so too did their confidence. Protesters began blocking roads and attacking buildings in an industrial park.

Three villagers were arrested at the Communist HQ demonstrations, and the next day hundreds laid siege to the police station, demanding their release. The state responded to this challenge with unrestrained ferocity, with police and mercenaries beating villagers apparently without discrimination - men and women, children and the elderly.

Cops were eventually called back to their posts, and the government struck a conciliatory tone, even asking villagers to elect delegates who could air their grievances. In retrospect, this seems to have been a ploy to uncover the 'leadership'. One of these - respected village butcher Xue Jinbo - died in police custody, apparently the victim of a state killing. The state news agency claimed that Xue was the victim of a heart attack, but the bruised knees, bloodied nostrils and broken thumbs reported by his son in law indicate this took place under torture.

What happened next stunned Beijing authorities, and sent shockwaves around the world in mid-December. The furious Wukan villagers banded together and drove the police and Communist Party officials out of town. They then set about running things for themselves. Meanwhile, cops maintained a blockade a few miles away. At this point, the central government's strategy appeared to be one of containment. They shied away from a violent restoration of 'order', perhaps wary of inflaming tensions nationwide. But if they could successfully stop the story from getting out to the wider world, Wukan residents would soon be faced with a choice - surrender or starvation.

Xue Jinbao addressing a meeting before his death at the hands of the state
However, that is not how the story ended. Despite the blocking of Wukan-related internet searches within China itself, some international media were in town to spread the word, and villagers even set up their own press office. People from nearby villages managed to smuggle food in - their solidarity directly fuelling the resistance. There was also some wealth redistribution from the wealthiest to the poorest, ensuring that everyone would survive the blockade.

Frustrated, the Communist leadership eventually cut a deal. Though details are scarce and unreliable, the provincial government has reportedly agreed to buy back land it had seized, and allow the peasants to collectivise it once more. Detained villagers have been released, and an 'investigation' into the death of Xue Jinbao has been announced. It appears as if there was some indication that Wukan peasant delegates would be allowed to stand in local elections, because villagers are now complaining that officials have gone back on their word. This week it was also being reported that Chinese citizens who had expressed sympathy with the uprising were being called in "to drink tea" with police.

But central government are unlikely to pick a significant fight in Wukan any time soon. From their perspective, it would be preferable to let things cool down, and allow the story to die a death. However, there are growing indications that the national export-led economy is being dragged down by rising recessionary tides in the western world. Factory bosses have already been compelled to attack jobs, wages and conditions across the country, and a strike movement seems to be gathering pace. During the first recession of this global depression, Chinese leaders threw money at the problem, and seemed to have headed off a broad revolt. But that money has now been spent, and indeed led to more problems, as a property bubble seems fit to burst.

We are in unchartered territory here, so the future develoment of Chinese struggles is difficult to predict. But we can be sure that turmoil in China will have a huge impact around the world, due to the country's pivotal role in commodity production. It it now possible to envisage a largescale uprising of the Chinese industrial proletariat, which would no doubt find support in peasant villages like Wukan. To paraphrase the supposed Chinese curse, we may live in very interesting times.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Why Liam Byrne is Misleading on the Beveridge Settlement

Beveridge shored up the ruling class by proposing concessions to workers
Seventy years ago, William Beveridge's Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services was presented to Parliament. The Report had a huge influence on policy, effectively providing a blueprint for the social democratic 'welfare state'. Though far from a revolutionary document, it still proposed far-reaching reforms, which were huge concessions to the working class following the struggles of the first Great Depression and World War Two.

Yesterday, current Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and former Cabinet minister Liam Byrne used the occasion to position Labour as being - if anything - to the right of the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition, as they seek to finally dismantle the Beveridge settlement. In doing so, he absurdly suggested he was the political heir of Beveridge, who he claims "would have wanted determined action from government to get communities working once again".

During the early 1940s, ruling class figures were gripped with fear that - should Britain come out on the winning side during the war - the returning working class soldiers would expect the kind of "land fit for heroes" falsely promised during World War One. The mass struggles of the 1930s had shown that this was a very real possibility, and of course the example - debased as it was - of "actually existing socialism" in Eastern Europe provided an alternative flag for workers to rally behind. At the time, even Conservatives agreed that society needed to be restructured, because - as Quintin Hogg MP put it - "We must give them reforms or they will give us revolution".

With this in mind, Beveridge identified five "Giant Evils" in society - squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. Squalor was to be combated by the largescale construction of good quality council housing, "ignorance" by the introduction of comprehensive schooling, "want" by a benefits system, "idleness" by significant government intervention in the economy, and disease by what would be named the National Health Service.

As it transpired, Beveridge's recommendations - which chimed with the Keynesian economics then fashionable in ruling class circles - were enough to buy off British workers, and revolution was averted. However, bit by bit - and especially after the financial crises of the 1970s - governments of all shades have sought to overturn the post war social democratic settlement. The attacks spearheaded by the current government are aimed at finally bringing down the social democratic giant who was Beveridge.

The Beveridge Report boosted working class morale during WWII
And yet the Labour Party still has to present itself as an alternative government, should the coalition be brought down before its full term for instance. Byrne is a key figure in the party's attempt to rebrand itself yet again, as 'New Labour' becomes the even more right wing 'Blue Labour'. In his Guardian article, Byrne praises Beveridge in order to bury him.

According to Byrne, Beveridge:
"[...] would have wanted reform that was tough-minded, and asked everyone to work hard to find a job. He would have worried about the ways that his system had skewed social behaviour because he intended benefits to help people who had their earning power interrupted because of illness, industrial injury or the capriciousness of the trade cycle. He never foresaw unearned support as desirable."
As yet, Byrne proposes nothing concrete. But his words tend towards further stigmatisation of unemployed people, and almost entirely let both the current government, his own, and the several preceding it off the hook where the giant evil of "idleness" is concerned.

Beveridge certainly didn't intend that people should be able to become 'scroungers' - in today's terminology - after his benefits system was introduced. Indeed, that's why he insisted that benefits should be set so low as to deter people from living off them, and they are now worth relatively less with each passing year. However, he also believed that the government should always ensure that there was enough paid work out there for those who were fit and able to do it.

In his later Full Employment in a Free Society, Beveridge declared that individual employers were not capable of creating full employment, so that was the duty of the state. Unemployment should be kept to 3%, as a check on wage demands, but it should be allowed no higher. This policy was officially pursued by governments for decades, until Labour's James Callaghan and - more decisively - Margaret Thatcher put an end to it. Spurred on by economic globalisation, governments from the 1980s onwards would pursue 'free market' reforms aimed at reducing wage costs and therefore increasing profitability for the ruling class.

By posing the supposed necessity of "another tough-minded social revolution", Byrne promotes himself as a man who would take the reactionary attacks of Iain Duncan Smith even further. In the midst of this new great depression, the official UK unemployment count is at 2.64 million, and that figure is set to rise far higher in 2012. There are 5.7 officially unemployed people per vacancy, and of course many jobs go to those who are already in work, so long term unemployment is worsening. Despite their bluster about us all being in it together, this is great news for rulers who profit from working class misery. Indeed, Byrne's article shows he believes the levels of "want" are simply not high enough.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Occupy Wall Street Retake "Liberty Park" As Year Begins

Reposted from

MIDNIGHT UPDATE: Liberty Square has been retaken. New York, get down there now! See below for Live updates from the ground.
Tonight, expect a General Assembly in Liberty Square at 7pm, a noise demo in front of the Manhattan jail at 9pm, regrouping en masse at Liberty Square between 10pm and midnight, then partying in the streets as we go mobile. See here for full plans for the night!

GAs, protests, and parties are also taking place at Occupations in Boston, Oakland, DC, Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Nashville, Tampa, Bloomington, Toronto, Amsterdam, Tahir Square in Cairo, and elsewhere across the world. Find your local Occupy and come out if you can! What better way to bring in the new year than making a New Year's REVOLUTION?
If you can't make it out, find your local Occupation's livestream and social media accounts -- it's even better than watching the ball drop. New York livestreams have been intermittent. Try:

Live Updates from the Ground:

  • 5:05am: If you know someone who was arrested, call the NLG at (212) 679-6018. Full name and birthdate are helpful. Happy new year!
  • 4:05am: 30+ arrests throughout the night. Some still rallying at 13th st and 2nd ave.
  • 3:28am: Arrested livestreamers & tweeters active inside NYPD paddy wagon before NYPD turned off lights in van.
  • 3:12am: NYPD ejected Nat'l Lawyers Guild observer. Observer left and made phone call. NYPD demanded NLG observer put down phone, then arrested the observer.
  • 3:10am: NYPD physically threw livestreamers out of the group before making indiscriminate arrests of random pedestrians.
  • 3:07am: NYPD blockaded sidewalk, forced march to stop, threatened to arrest marchers for blocking the sidewalk. Mass arrest now brutalizing peaceful demonstrators.
  • 2:30am: Dozens of arrests made at 13th & 5th ave. Some still marching down 6th Ave. Targeting journalists, photographers, livestreamers with violence. Liberty Square mostly dispersed, crowds gone out to celebrate and prepare for the New Year.
  • 2:20am: Police block off street, mass violent arrests happening!
  • 2:10am: Mass of police vehicles rush north on Church Street, sirens and lights blaring, presumably after march up 7th Ave to Union Square.
  • 2:00am: Police using horses to clear sidewalks, attacking peaceful protesters in the street. Hundreds of police vehicles. Arrests also reported at march in Soho.
  • 1:30am: NYPD orders dispersal, arrests begin. Police clearing "Liberty Mountain." Some Occupiers marching to 7th Precinct to support arrested protesters.
  • 1:20am: Pounding batons, hundreds of police combing area asking for "official press passes." Arrests anticipated.
  • 1:05am: March at Fulton and Nassau, police still following. Reports police attempting to kettle protesters on sidewalks. A few more arrests reported. Others headed back to defend Liberty Square, where riot police continue to mass and threaten Occupiers.
  • 12:45pm: Thousands still in Square, as march leaves Liberty. Headed down Broadway, police moving in pursuit.
  • 12:40pm: Party continues at Liberty. Cops backing down for now. Barricades are twinkling after Occupiers hung lights across piled barricades.
  • 12:00pm: Happy New Year from OCCUPIED Liberty Square! Thousands already here. JOIN US!
  • 11:50pm: Riot cops, batons drawn, mobilizing in formation. Police mounted on horses. More barricades taken down, piled in center of park.
  • 11:30pm: Party continues on "Liberty Mountain" (the pile of barricades). More pics here.
  • 11:20pm: Police losing control. Barricade pile growing as Occupiers continue to clear them from sidewalks on all sides of park.
  • 11:10pm: Medics tending to pepper spray victims. Some directly sprayed, others hit indirectly. Meanwhile, the People's Kitchen is back open in Liberty Square! Also, mainstream media reporting Dept. of Homeland Security seen on ground.
  • 11:05pm: More police brutality reported. Cops shove barricade into protester's face; pepper spray confirmed. From NYC_GA Twitter: "Bloodied protester being dragged away by #NYPD"
  • 11:00pm: More police vehicles showing up. On south side, protesters removed barricades, piled them together, dancing on top! Huge crowd in park. Reports pepper spray used by police.
  • 10:55pm: The People's Library has returned to Liberty Square! [Picture here.] tz55A67WQ
  • 10:45pm: Protesters corralled into Liberty Square and surrounded by police. From Twitter: "Cops are swarming liberty square, tearing down their own barricade in their pursuit of protesters. People are being forced back in the park (#irony)"
  • 10:40pm: Multiple Occupy groups on the move throughout lower Manhattan. More arrests on livestream. Liberty Square barricades torn down by protesters; Occupiers inside. OWS New York is taking back our home!
  • 10:20pm: More arrests. At least four confirmed.
  • 10:10pm: NYPD has blocked off Bowery & Canal, racing to catch up to the march.
  • 10:00pm: Police appear at anti-prison march, protesters continue march with banners, chanting "Occupy Wall Street is in town, burn the prisons to the ground!'" Unconfirmed reports of at least one arrest.
  • 9:30pm: Meanwhile in Boston, the 99% "Bat Signal" returns!
  • 9:50pm: Anti-prison rally making tons of noise with horns, drums, whistles, chanting. Now taking the streets, headed to Liberty. Photo from Twitter
  • 9:20pm: Protesters assemble at Noise Demo outside Manhattan jail, addressing prisoners inside with People's Mic.
  • 9:00pm: Four year old under threat of arrest hands over tent to Bloomberg's publicly funded private army. American flag not let into Liberty Square, under pretense that flagpole was a weapon.
  • 8:45pm: Occupiers jumping NYPD barricades around Liberty. Discussion heard via mic check between NYPD and mom and children with tent. Brookfield Properties security seen carrying away tiny tent.
  • 8:00pm: After Occupiers hold General Assembly in Liberty Square, NYPD closes off access to the park claiming rule violations because some people (including children) set up a "toy-sized" (via Newyorkist) tent. Protesters now marching around Liberty Park chanting "All Day, All Week, Occupy Wall Street!"

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