Saturday, August 25, 2012

Assange, the 'Left' and the Cult of Personality (*trigger warning*)

Assange: he's not the messiah, he's a rapist
In a statement to the High Court over a year ago now, Assange lawyer Ben Emmerson did not deny the appellants' descriptions of what Assange did to them - indeed he admitted it was "disturbing" and "disrespectful" - but merely made the case that these actions fell short of the British definitions of rape. The court - and anti-rape campaigners - rejected his plea. This - in conjunction with the feminist argument for an automatic presumption of belief in those who accuse others of rape - should really have been the end of any debate on 'the left'.

As Zoe Stavri summarised in her brilliant takedown of George Galloway:
"So, the first point outlines pinning a woman down in order to force her into sexual activity. The second is tricking a woman into sexual activity to which she had not consented. The third is non-consensual - albeit non-penetrative - sexual activity. The fourth is having sex with a woman who is completely unable to consent. The fifth is exactly the same as the second. You'll notice, George, that the recurring theme throughout all of this is that the women were not consenting. There's a word for sex without consent. Rape."
But no, thirteen months down the line, Assange is hiding in the London Ecuadorian embassy, and his backers in what might very loosely be termed 'the left' are either coming out as virulent rape apologists, the most wild conspiracy theorists, or both. Galloway's disgusting description of what he called the "sex game" is the most flagrant example, while Craig Murray was reduced to making insinuations out of a corner of his mouth on Newsnight. Other 'celebrity left' Assange apologists include John Pilger, Noam Chomsky, Ken Loach and Michael Moore.

There are many facets to this 'support'. For the celebrity 'lefts', there is likely an element of back-scratching going on, with people who have boosted each other in the past returning favours. This layer is, after all, relatively well-off and extremely well-connected. There is an opportunism to this, and a very definite lack of principles. For most other Assange defenders, there is also a type of 'my enemy's enemy is my friend' anti-imperialism, combined with explicit and implicit misogyny. In some, this overlaps with a conspiracy fascination, in which cui bono rules, no evidence is ever provided, and indeed no evidence is even sought.

But in all the coverage of this case, an essential question remains unanswered: if you support the work of WikiLeaks, why defend even its figurehead from rape allegations? Is his involvement with a whistleblowing website somehow meant to give him a get out of jail free card when it comes to rape? Of course, the website as a whole should be defended from the ruling class campaign against it, because it is a genuinely progressive force. And of course, Assange is only being so vigorously pursued for rape because of his career. But that absolutely does not mean we should be in his corner as he denies his victims the justice they seek.

In an era where mass struggle is almost entirely absent - in the UK at least - a culture has clearly developed where an individual who makes any kind of political impact is labelled as a 'good' or 'bad' person, depending on what they have done politically. But in the real world, people aren't either Jesus or Satan. They take part in politics for their own ends, and they can't be condemned for that - this being replicated on a mass scale is the only way that social change will come about. When it comes to it, Assange isn't even on the radical left - he describes himself as a "market libertarian". However, the greatest working class fighter in the world could still be a rapist. What matters isn't the individuals, but the struggles they are a part of. Hero-worshipping of an individual is the antithesis of true activism, and it is poison to the urgent development of a new movement.

Friday, August 17, 2012

South African Cops Massacre Miners As Class War Intensifies

The grisly scene after yesterday's state massacre in Marikana
Between thirty and forty miners were killed yesterday when cops opened fire on striking platinum workers in Marikana, north western South Africa. The deaths took place within the context of police declarations that they would bring the week-long strike to a conclusion that day, and represent the biggest single state atrocity in the country since the ending of apartheid.

The struggle began in earnest last Friday, when miners employed by British-owned Lonmin walked out and demanded a more than trebling of their monthly pay from 4,000 rand (£306) to 12,500 rand (£957). Underlying the conflict has been something of a turf war between the government-linked National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and a breakaway, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction union (AMCU).

The NUM is part of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which alongside the African National Congress and the Communist Party, has formed the 'tripartite alliance' which has overseen the establishment of a black bourgeoisie under the presidencies of Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe, and incumbent Jacob Zuma. Emblematic of this venal back-scratching elite is former NUM leader Cyril Ramaphosa, whose wealth was estimated at $275 million, including a large portion in mining interests. Meanwhile, the imposition of neoliberal international finance directives has meant worsening conditions for the vast majority, particularly since the onset of the global economic crisis four years ago.

The class interests at stake were made explicit during yesterday's showdown. In the morning, the provincial police commissioner told the media that "our intention is to make sure that people leave that illegal gathering area where they are and that is what we will do today...today we are ending this matter." What followed was something like a battle. Three thousand strikers gathered on high ground above the mine, armed with clubs, spears, iron bars and - at least according to police accounts - firearms. NUM president Senzeni Zokwana was driven in a police van to the top of the hill, to plead with the strikers, but this was to no avail as he was shouted down. The cops then tried to force the miners off their defensive position with tear gas, stun grenades and water cannon. At this point, a section of the strikers approached the police lines, and were cut down by gunfire.

The massacre took place against the background of rising class tensions throughout South Africa. Demonstrators angry at the government's failure to ensure housing, electricity, water and sanitation services have taken to the streets in recent weeks. At least four people have died in Cape Town violence in the past week, with stones being thrown at police stations burning barricades erected in the streets.

Officially, unemployment is at 25% in South Africa, but other estimates put it at nearer 40%. In workplaces, the downturn in Europe is prompting businesses to increase exploitation rates, and spark exactly the kind of dispute seen at Marikana. At the opposite pole, the country's richest hundred individuals saw their wealth increase by 62% last year. It is precisely this extreme levels of income disparity which will fuel further battles between the forces of the working class and the forces of the capitalist state in the near future.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Striking cleaners win victory against John Lewis

London cleaners organised in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union have claimed yet another victory! The following is reposted from The Third Estate:

Cleaners at the flag ship John Lewis store on Oxford Street have won a fantastic victory against job cuts and low pay. The management have now agreed to withdraw, totally, plans for mass compulsory redundancy, and to give cleaners 10% pay rise, backdated to March – following a strike by staff who had organised themselves within the IWW.
Back in late July I went down to the John Lewis store to support the strike. I must confess that I was initially unsure as to whether the workers could win: at this point only a section of cleaning staff were actually organised in the union. What impressed though was the militancy and sheer presence of the picket line. Everybody who went in – whether they were colleagues, bosses, or delivery drivers  - was compelled to properly engage with the fact that their was a strike on. Meanwhile a very deliberate effort. was made to inform the shopping public of the dispute – both at the flagship store and at John Lewis’ sister store Peter Jones. (At one point the police were called to prevent a few of us leafletting outside the latter. To their credit, the police seemed rather amused that they had been called down and explained to the manager that it was not within their remit to stop people giving out leaflets).
It is of some significance that these Cleaners were outsourced, rather than being direct employees of the firm. It is typical, in such situations, for businesses like John Lewis to plead impotence, and claim that the dispute can only be settled between the workers and the contractor. This dispute has shown what rubbish some claims are. This victory was won, in part, because John Lewis themselves did not want it happening in their shop front. Indeed, on the day of the strike a senior member of the partnership – in an attempt to illustrate his good intent – showed us an email sent from John Lewis to their outsourcer, urging them to resolve the dispute quickly and satisfactorily.
This dispute really does represent an important example to us all in these otherwise grim times. ”First 50% of cleaners hours were to be cut, then nearly a third of the work-force were to be made redundant, now after a courageous struggle not a single cleaner at John Lewis Oxford street will be forced to lose their job”, said Chris Ford an IWW organiser. “In an age of austerity this is no small achievement”.

my interview with a striking cleaner, name withheld

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Riots: In Their Own Words

BBC Two, 13th August 2012

To not much fanfare, the BBC finally showed The Riots: In Their Own Words last night. This, if you remember, was the docu-drama which was suspended a month ago, by an unknown judge, in an unknown court, presiding over an unknown case. But watching it, the reasons for the postponement became obvious - the powers that be clearly couldn't stand the idea of such an accurate portrait of resentment towards the state and status quo being shown in the run-up to the corporate/nationalistic nightmare that was the Olympics.

Though their words are spoken by actors, the interviewees here - all participants in last year's rioting - gave a brutally honest and hard-hitting assessment of everyday life as it is faced by growing numbers of the young working class. The motivations they gave were many, but in their own way, each was a searing indictment of ruling class politics.

The immediate spark - lest we forget - was the police killing of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black man. In the hours that followed this shooting, the cops did their usual dirty work, lying about both victim and incident in the media. Over a year on, the highly complicit and misnamed "Independent Police Complaints Commission" has failed to put forward any coherent explanation of that day's events.

The film describes how large groups of people from Duggan's estate and neighbouring areas gathered outside Tottenham Police Station, where they were promised answers if they waited a few hours. After that time, an announcement was made that the commissioner wasn't ready to make any statement, and anger erupted. Demonstrators blocked the road, barricades were erected, then set on fire, and the summer riots of 2011 had begun.

Those most involved in Tottenham insist this was a political act, in as much as it was against the police. One man claimed that "We're used to being roughed up by the police, we're used to being stopped by the police and harassed, abused by them [...] but it's like they've taken foul play to a whole new level." For another, people were "chuffed to throw a brick at a police van and nothing happened [...] A little bit like fight back at the system. It's not just a riot, it was a statement."

As we all know, word spread quickly, and the next night others took their chance, sensing weakness in the police response. "This is our chance to fuck up feds [police] and do our thing. It felt like we'd been on a leash for years", and "that day, we had the power".

In the chaos - some might say anarchy - many saw a window of opportunity to get rich quick, and take electrical goods, trainers, and other expensive items from unguarded shops. One interviewee insisted that for him, it was all about "easy money", and getting as much as he could. A school age girl described being swept up in the moment, eventually going along with the crowd and lifting goods from various outlets.

For one Tottenham woman in particular, this was a distraction from the serious business of the Mark Duggan "cause". As she put it: "...if they were out there pelting the police and not looting the shops I would say 'Yes, this is a good war to have with the police'." Some condemned the lack of honour among the "thieves", while others were angered by the torching of various buildings (though the possibility of a conscious defence against DNA testing was put forward by someone).

But even with the looting, in the words of one man: "We're normal people trying to make a life for ourselves and there's no opportunities out there." Turn of the millennium capitalism preaches that to consume is to live, and yet for many, it provides less and less opportunities to do so legally. The programme manages to convey a real sense that in Tottenham with Duggan, around London with the Metropolitan Police, and with the deprivation increasingly prevalent around the country, the riots were a long time in the making. In perhaps the most crucial words of the whole hour, a man asks: "How many protests have we had, and nothing's gone our way? And then when we turn to violence...what else are we meant to turn to?"

In the closing minutes, the narration almost falls over itself in an attempt to underplay the significance of its own findings, perhaps out of self-censorship. But the radical truth about the UK under the coalition has now been broadcast. For me personally, it was almost shocking to finally see some reality on TV.

The Riots: In Their Own Words will be available to view on iPlayer until 27th August 2012.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Reflections on Liverpool Pride 2012

Photo courtesy of Catherine Higgins
Saturday and Sunday saw the third annual Liverpool Pride, which is held on the nearest weekend to August 2nd in memory of Michael Causer, who was the victim of a homophobic killing in 2008. According to the BBC, the festivities attracted 52,000 people, and I was one of them, wearing my Liverpool Antifascists t-shirt - and soon enough a lot of glitter - in solidarity.

Things started bright and early at 9:30, with a pre-Pride rally at Concert Square, organised by the Merseyside LGBT Student Network. In sharp contrast to those we would hear later, all the speeches were delivered with passion, as the young speakers talked up the political essence of Pride, as well as tracing LGBT liberation back to the Stonewall uprising of 1969.

We then marched through to the space between St John's Gardens and St George's Hall, where the full parade was forming up. Before that set off in near-torrential rain, we had a couple more speeches to get through. The first was from Wallasey MP Angela Eagle, who was the openly lesbian UK member of parliament. But perhaps more importantly for her credibility, she was a minister in the last Labour government, and appropriately for the event's 'patron', she patronised the assembled crowd by essentially claiming much of the credit for advances made in LGBT liberation in recent decades. She launched a pathetic attack on the Conservatives - not for their cuts or wars of course - but for not being sufficiently pro-LGBT. While this would be great from someone who wasn't complicit in the last government's policies, Eagle came across as desperate for votes and LGBT credibility, and there was some booing. After all, the Coalition are currently consulting on marriage equality. Her government did no such thing.

We then paraded through the centre of town in high spirits, and on to the Pier Head. Many bystanders clapped and cheered, others laughed, a majority almost completely ignored us. The only abuse came from a miserable-looking group of Christians preaching hate and bigotry by the Victoria monument, protected by a circle of cops. They got a good heckling from some of us, while a couple of women decided to kiss in front of them, at which point one whipped out his camera!

The miserable bigots and their bodyguards
The celebrations went on all day at various places in the city, and particularly in the 'gay quarter' centred on Dale Street and Stanley Street. The atmosphere was generally excellent, and many people were clearly having a great time. That such a big party can go on in Liverpool almost entirely unharassed is testament to the positive changes which have taken place in attitudes to LGBT people in the wider public. And although political issues relating to LGBT oppression were only given a decent airing at our smaller feeder demo, Pride could be considered an act of mass direct action against heteronormativity.

But while this is all well and good in the city centre - and even more particularly in the haven of the 'gay quarter' - Pride seems special for many precisely because it is the one day in which they are encouraged to be publicly proud of their orientation. While state-level discrimination against LGBT people is slowly being chipped away in the UK, personal oppression remains horribly high, and there are large areas of the city where individuals or couples open about their sexuality face very real danger. Until this is no longer the case, Pride cannot be considered a victory march.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Toxteth Meeting Discusses How To Build Liverpool Antifascism

The following has been posted on the Liverpool Antifascists website. It's telling that the North West Infidels Facebook page responded to news of a meeting in a community they'd helped besiege with "We say shove yah meeting up ye shitter":


Last night, Liverpool Antifascists held perhaps our largest ever meeting, in response to the events of 21st July, when the James Larkin Society’s anti-fascist march was aggressively targeted by hundreds from the English Defence League, Combined Ex-Forces and other far right groups. To achieve what had amounted to a nationwide fascist mobilisation, the fascists had falsely linked the Irish flute band with being “IRA supporters”, or simply being “IRA”. As we marched, cops made many arrests in response to fascists throwing missiles, spitting into the procession, and sometimes trying to break through police lines to reach us.

Yesterday’s gathering took place in Toxteth – the area we had assembled in on the 21st, and which we had marched through to reach town. The impetus for the event came from a Facebook group that had sprung up within hours of the demo, asking why fascists had been allowed to march through L8. This gave us some clues to how disorientating the spectacle must have been for people to open their windows and see so many Union Jacks being waved by the roadside, while the kerb presence of so many fascists and police must have made our ranks almost invisible!
Liver AF wanted to set the record straight, so we did that on the Facebook page, and took the opportunity to put our case forward face to face at the meeting. There was agreement that anti-fascism needs to “sink its roots” deep not only in Toxteth, but also throughout the city, if that Saturday’s horrible scenes are not to be witnessed again. Our central idea of “working class unity against fascism” was unanimously welcomed.
For the next couple of hours, there was much discussion about precisely how this can be achieved. Though there were definite differences of emphasis, if all the ideas expressed in that room are put into place over the coming period, in years to come the 21st of July 2012 will be seen to have been the making of Liverpool anti-fascism.

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