Thursday, December 31, 2009
The contradiction between what society is capable of and the reactionary nature of the governments and the state systems that rule over us is an explosive cocktail. Astute bourgeois commentators have expressed concern that a new decade will bring not a return to the fabled growth of the early part of the previous decade period but a period of social unrest and instability that will rock the established order.
The closing days of 2009 indicated the shape of things to come. The shadow of 9/11 hung over Detroit, while the Chinese rulers ignored pleas to halt the execution of a mentally ill father of three and prospects for the world economy worsened.
Obama’s election provided a brief moment of hope for many that the see-saw of economic and ecological terror between the two super-powers – the US and China – might be transformed into something less lethal. But this hope was foiled when Obama increased troop deployment to Afghanistan and opposed binding cuts in carbon emissions.
Chinese leaders presiding over the largest carbon emissions in the world blocked efforts at the Copenhagen climate conference to prevent eco-meltdown. The conference showed squabbling world leaders unable to reach any agreement to prevent global warming. The only forces who offered solutions were leaders like Evo Morales of Bolivia, Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed, plus the thousands who took part in the alternative summit at Klimaforum.
Writers such as Martin Wolf of the Financial Times and historians Simon Schama and Niall Ferguson point to the dangers attending the present shift in global history – the transition from one global superpower, the United States, to another in the shape of China. The fact is, that as the baton of leading economic globalisation is being passed from the west to the east, the nature of the beast itself remains the same, albeit wearing another mask. It is capitalist production relations – the exploitation of human beings in the name of profit – that breeds today’s economic and political autocrats, west and east, north and south.
A chill wind is blowing in the wake of the loss of western capitalist supremacy in all its guises – economic, military and ideological. “The west, in general, and the US in particular”, Wolf writes, “have suffered a disastrous loss of authority …The chaos that followed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, far more, the financial crisis have destroyed the west’s reputation for competency. The rest of the world was inclined to believe that the west, whatever its faults, knew what it was doing, particularly where running a market economy was concerned. But then, the teacher failed the examination.”
So where does Britain fit into the massive loss of credibility by those who have promoted corporate-driven globalisation – New Labour and the Conservatives – and all those who tell us there is no alternative to capitalism and its political system? We are lurching towards an election with the two main parties competing as to who will make the biggest cuts in public spending in a vain attempt to repay the massive public debt incurred by the banking bailouts.
But how is this to be accomplished? By a massive “shift of national effort from the public to the private sector,” says Tory ideologist Sir Max Hastings, “incurring trade union resistance that may well spill on to the streets”. He does not share the vain illusion that the green shoots of recovery will peep through after a cold winter. “It seems hard to overstate the pain in store when the next government embarks on the steps necessary to restore the public finances,” he says. Should Cameron win the next election, he “must tell the British people that in 2009 their long weekend ended … On Mr Cameron’s watch, economic bombs will start exploding.”
When people like Hastings make grim forecasts like these, it’s time to recognise the shape of things to come. Public records just published reveal that Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan wanted to declare a state of emergency and send the army in during the road hauliers strike in 1979. When it comes to using force, New Labour will have no more hesitation than their Tory counterparts.
The reality of the economic crisis will drive whatever government is elected into extreme authoritarian measures to impose the rule of the bankers and the global corporations. Only six percent of the UK population at present actually believes the government is telling the truth about the economy. So gentle persuasion that we are to take massive cuts in services, pay and conditions is simply out of the question.
Public anger with bankers and politicians alike has even driven Martin Dickson, the Financial Times’ deputy editor, to pen a few verses about dangerous times ahead:
But there’s a price we all will pay
If politicians won’t display
A little courage and crack down
Upon these unsafe, grasping clowns:
Another bomb is being built,
By bankers with no sense of guilt.
It’s ticking now, will louder tick
Unless we stop it, fast and quick.
For mark my words, believe this rhyme,
It will go off in five years’ time.
You’ll hear no end of sturm and drang.
When it explodes with a loud BANG!
So the warnings are piling up in a variety of forms! The need to put an end to the political system that serves only the bankers, their corporate clients and self-seeking politicians will be more apparent than ever in the coming months.
Writing off humanity and the planet is for lazy sceptics and cynics. That is the easy way out! What A World to Win proposes is to take up the challenge to find revolutionary solutions. It is about us – all of us around the planet – having the confidence that we can find a way forward. It means defining and shaping a more advanced kind of human nature than has hitherto been possible. That’s the challenge for 2010.
A World to Win secretary
Wednesday, December 30, 2009
Today is the 20th anniversary of the bursting of Japan’s bubble economy of the 1980s. The culmination of attempting to deal with the relentless impact of two decades of precipitous decline has destroyed the health of two finance ministers in less than a year and the prospects for their successor are not bright.
The fate of these two individuals stands as a cipher for the interaction of economics and politics which threatened the lives of the six billion of the world’s rising population before Copenhagen’s failed talks, and threatens them even more as every day passes.
The latest casualty, Hirohisa Fujii will spend the New Year holidays in hospital, recovering from apparent exhaustion after weeks of intense work on next year's record trillion dollar budget, according to reports.
Fujii, Minister in the three-month old Democratic Party-led government, took on the job after Shoichi Nakagawa was found dead in the bedroom of his Tokyo home in September. In February he appeared to be drunk at a news conference during the Group of Seven financial leaders’ meeting in Rome in February.
Fujii’s budget is a renewed attempt to return the Japanese capitalist economy to profitable growth using the same measures which have consistently failed there, and are failing now throughout the world in the wake of the global meltdown of the last 30 months.
Trying to pump prime the global economy to “return to growth” is exactly the worst possible medicine to deal with climate change, but they all keep on trying because they have nothing else to offer.
Since December 30th, 1989 Japan’s stock market has lost three quarters of its value, dropping to the second largest in the world, behind the US, measured by the proportion of global capital registered there, and its fate remains of immense importance.
Until the global crisis shattered the global bubble in 2007, corporate profits in Japan had increased by 62% at the expense of continuously falling wages, but now the economy is in a deep slump with prices dropping. Despite loudly trumpeted signs of recovery the rest of the world is set to follow Japan’s downward trajectory.
As Tony Roberts, a fund manager at Invesco Perpetual, puts it: “Over time large, global companies have grown profits more quickly than domestic ones and so we are investing less and less in the Japanese domestic economy as each year passes.” Capital follows its own logic and capitalist governments have no choice but to bow to its needs, whatever controls people like Russia’s government under prime minister Putin may want to impose.
Even if the faint hopes of increased exports to China materialise, Japan’s gross public debt is budgeted to increase to 200%. This means that government debt equivalent to double the value of the country’s projected production of goods and services - way beyond the worst nightmares of Western countries – will be required to keep the capitalist economy afloat.
The UK’s economy is following Japan’s over the cliff. Since 1989, the value of the UK’s stock market has fallen from third to fourth behind China, and in the first decade of the new millennium the UK recorded its lowest growth of the post-war period and the worst returns for stock-market investors since the 1930s. Its manufacturing output actually contracted over the decade by 1.2 per cent annually.
The billions of individuals who make up the world’s population can no longer leave their fate to the insane logic of capital accumulation which has now turned into its self-destructive opposite. Help us with the project to draft a Manifesto of Revolutionary Solutions with the aim of challenging capitalist power, economically and politically.
Monday, December 21, 2009
Turning points in human history are few and far between. But it is no exaggeration to say that the abject failure of the Copenhagen climate change conference is one such event, a moment when humanity was hit by an unprecedented collective betrayal.
After two weeks of wrangling in the Danish capital following 18 months of preparatory talks, the conference that was supposed to end with a binding treaty to cut carbon emissions came up with a big fat zero. Nothing. A couple of sheets of hastily put together text that were so meaningless that the UN conference could only “note” their contents before the conference closed.
The message from political elites representing the major economies was clear: Humanity, you are own your own. We have more “important” issues to deal with – saving the banks and getting “back to growth”. These “leaders” in effect decided to allow climate change to rush ahead unchecked with dire results if they are left in charge of our lives.
The failure at Copenhagen means that the big corporations will do nothing to reduce emissions, and the energy corporations have a free rein to go on burning carbon while others will profit from the obscene carbon-trading market. It is the opposite of what is needed.
It will actively encourage the extraction of oil from tar sands; it will make it easy to avoid working towards clean coal; it will enable nuclear power and it will encourage and reward clearing of rain forest for palm oil plantations. As for helping poorer countries, the following example of “adaptation” is what is in store.
Thousands of acres of coastal land in Bangladesh which used to support families growing rice has now become too saline for the crop. To “adapt” to this impact of climate change, the land is being transformed into shrimp farms, for export to the wealthy west. Landlords are evicting their tenant farmers, taking grants from the government and moving into this cash crop. Thousands of families are being driven off the land and into the slums of Dhaka, or across the border into India as illegal migrants.
No wonder the poorer countries stood up at Copenhagen and refused to be railroaded into some deal that would allow the major capitalist countries to carve up the biosphere in a kind of neo-colonialism more in common with the 19th century.
Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia had it right, when he told the conference that the capitalist system of production was the problem. But it’s not solely an economic dilemma that humanity faces. Primarily it’s a political challenge.
If Copenhagen demonstrated anything it was that the political systems in Europe, the United States, China, India, Australia and other key countries are tied inextricably to the maintenance of the capitalist status quo – at any price, including global warming.
More and more millions across the world do not agree that just a handful of government leaders should be in control of undemocratic, unresponsive political state systems and have the power to decide our destiny.
As the noted environmental campaigner George Monbiot put it after Copenhagen collapsed: “In all cases immediate self-interest has trumped the long-term welfare of humankind … The governments which moved so swiftly to save the banks have bickered and filibustered while the biosphere burns.”
Unfortunately, Monbiot is deeply pessimistic, unable to conceive of an alternative way forward. Well, we can. Those who sabotaged Copenhagen have lost their authority, their legitimacy and their right to rule over us on behalf of equally-discredited corporate and financial interests.
We have no choice but to make 2010 a year of revolutionary, democratic change that transforms economic and political power structures. Help us with the project to draft a Manifesto of Revolutionary Solutions as a positive response to the debacle at Copenhagen.
Paul Feldman, communications editor
Penny Cole, environment editor
Friday, December 18, 2009
British Airways cabin crew should not only be angry at the partisan decision of the courts to declare their planned strike illegal – they should also direct their rage at the way the leaders of the Unite union have conducted themselves.
Unite’s leaders spent months in negotiations with BA management only to stand by when contractual changes were suddenly introduced without agreement. BA then went ahead and reduced crew numbers on flights and imposed a pay freeze while new entrants begin on far worse conditions.
Any self-respecting union leadership would have called the 12,700 cabin crew out on strike there and then in response to BA’s provocation. But oh no, Unite’s leaders dillied and dallied out of sheer fear, not just at what BA’s response might be but at the consequences of defying the anti-trade union laws.
These laws, introduced by the Tories in the early 1990s, make it illegal to have a strike without a ballot. This is not aimed at enhancing democracy but at defusing workers’ anger while weeks are spent on an expensive ballot operation in place of the traditional show of hands at a mass meeting.
Even then, Unite’s officials couldn’t get it right. They opened the door to a BA challenge by balloting a small group of cabin crew who had taken voluntary redundancy. Of course, the 92% vote in favour of a strike on an 80% turnout easily outweighed those balloted in error. But with the media engaged in a ferocious witch-hunt, Mrs Justice Cox ruled that the ballot did not conform to the 1992 Trade Union Act.
As an official from Bassa, the branch of Unite that covers the cabin crew, is reported to have said: “"The decision questions your faith in the whole system. It makes you wonder if you have the right to strike any more.”
Precisely. The right to strike has long since disappeared in Britain and the union leadership has, by and large, gone along with this. After yesterday’s court ruling, the leaders of Unite declared it “a bad day for democracy”. Well, if they are so concerned about democracy, why didn’t just they simply defy the court and go ahead with the strike instead or planning another ballot? If they had done that, it would have been a blow for democracy against undemocratic laws.
At one time, union leaders were bold enough to defy the state and fight for their members. In 1972, the predecessors of Unite in the Transport and General Workers Union ignored anti-union laws brought in by the Heath Tory government. As a result, five dockers were jailed for contempt of court. This sparked moves towards a one-day General Strike and the ruling class quickly found a legal loophole to free the dockers within days. Within a few years, the unions compelled a Labour government to abolish the anti-union laws.
How things have changed! New Labour has retained virtually all the anti-union legislation passed by Thatcher. Former prime minister Tony Blair congratulated himself for declaring that Britain had the most draconian anti-union laws in Europe. And the union leaders have done nothing in 12 years of New Labour to change the position. Yet rank and file trade unionists like those who staged “unofficial” walkouts at the Lindsey oil refinery have demonstrated that the anti-union laws quickly disintegrate in the face of mass defiance.
The moral of this tale is that in order to defend jobs, wages and conditions in the midst of a capitalist slump, serious, dedicated, principled leaders, who are not frightened of the state, are absolutely essential. Hot air and bluster are well past their use-by date.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
It is becoming a cliché to blame the Danish government and the way the talks have been structured for the lack of progress at the Copenhagen climate change conference. Climate Change minister Ed Miliband, for example, warned that the conference may descend into farce, adding: “People will find it extraordinary that this conference ... is at the moment being stalled on points of order."
But all this is a smokescreen. It is not points of order that are stalling the talks. The reality is that the only agreement now on the table is an empty political stitch-up that represents not a step forward from Kyoto, but a step backwards.
With all its weaknesses, the Kyoto Protocol at least provided a legally-binding framework under the auspices of the UN, and there is no way the talks can now deliver that.
In fact, there is a powerful reactionary backlash against any action on climate change, reflected in the actions of some major states over recent months. In Australia, the Liberal Party has replaced its former leader with Tony Abbott, a climate change denier whose party has blocked the minority Labour government’s plans to introduce an emissions trading scheme.
In Canada, the “filthy lucre” from extracting oil from tar sands proved irresistible to the government and this dirty business is now full steam ahead. Documents leaked by climate activists show the Canadian government will not to try to meet the already weak emissions reductions targets it set in 2008.
US officials have made absolutely clear that when President Obama arrives in Denmark he won't bring anything to the talks beyond Washington's already stated goals to commit to reducing greenhouse gases by 17% from 2005 levels by 2020 and to pay a "fair share" into a $10 billion fund to help developing countries deal with climate change.
China, which unbelievably continues to squat in the conference alongside the G77 group of the world’s poorest nations, has made clear that it has no plans for emissions reductions. It has invented a new weasel phrase to cover its shame – the meaningless commitment to a reduction in the “carbon intensity” of their economy.
This is the real face of capitalism in crisis – the cornered rat that will fight for survival at any cost. We also saw it in action in the beatings, tear gassing and brutal arrest of protesters who were simply trying to bring the needs of humanity as a whole from the outside to the inside of the conference.
The poor countries walked out on Monday in protest at the abandonment of Kyoto, but walked back in again after just five hours. Five hours was all they could manage in support of their own people in Africa, Bangladesh, the Small Island States and across the world, whose lives are already being destroyed by climate change. They should have walked out and stayed out!
There was just one moment of truth in the talks, when Bolivian President Evo Morales stated bluntly: "The real cause of climate change is the capitalist system. If we want to save the earth then we must end that economic model. Capitalism wants to address climate change with carbon markets. We denounce those markets and the countries which [promote them]. It's time to stop making money from the disgrace that they have perpetrated."
Morales’ demanded that targets be set to keep warming below 1 degree and his delegation are also fighting for an enforceable agreement to put the whole of nature under statutory protection.
He may not have much support inside the conference, but there is plenty of support for him outside. From the day the talks end, we must mobilise globally to put this revolutionary perspective into practice, finding ways to end, and transcend global capitalism to start to tackle global warning and conserve and restore nature.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
As we prepare our Manifesto of Revolutionary Solutions, it is of the greatest importance that our analysis and the policies we put forward, are based on the most accurate and well-rounded estimation of the nature and scale of the global crisis and its impact on ordinary working people.
The McKinsey Global Institute is one organisation assembling the evidence and it has just released a review of its research results from the last year. A look at just a few of the figures from this leading business consultancy’s research arm provides sobering reading.
• World financial assets fell in value by $16 trillion to $178 trillion in 2008, marking the largest setback on record and a break in the three-decade-long expansion of global capital markets
• Financial globalisation reversed in the wake of the crisis. Capital flows fell 82% in 2008, to just $1.9 trillion from $10.5 trillion in 2007
• Declines in equity and real estate values wiped out $28.8 trillion of global wealth in 2008 and the first half of 2009
• The 2008 stock market crash was the most severe since the Great Depression.
To get a sense of the meaning of these bare facts we need to dig a little deeper. The value of global production in 2008 was around $69 trillion. So the $28.8 trillion wipe-out of equity and property values was around 42% of global GDP. That’s bad enough. Catastrophic even.
But the figure for real estate grossly underestimates the scale of the decline because it is an estimate only of residential property values. According to McKinsey, global residential real estate values fell by $3.4 trillion in 2008 and nearly $2 trillion more in the first quarter of 2009.
Replacing this wealth will require a long period of higher saving, they say. To put this in perspective, the world’s households saved about 5% of their disposable income in 2008, or $1.6 trillion: they would have to save that amount for 18 consecutive years to amass $28.8 trillion.
This illustrative measure of saving leaves out the impact of falling wages, unemployment, pensions melting into the air, and the tax increases that will be needed to service huge increases in government debt incurred by attempts to slow, let alone reverse the decline. The idea that domestic saving will continue at anything like that rate looks highly unlikely. Impossible even.
And, as the recession deepens, the impact on commercial property – the recent collapse of Dubai’s property market, for example – is only now beginning to emerge and doesn’t enter into McKinsey’s narrower residential measure.
Like many analysts, McKinsey is pinning its muted hopes for a recovery on increased consumption in China, but that will require “a more aggressive” programme of “comprehensive reform”, by which they mean the privatisation of huge swathes of state-owned enterprises and generally thrifty Chinese people becoming bloated consumers.
But China's consumption-to-national income ratio is still the lowest of the world's major economies, and it has fallen by nearly 15% since 1990, despite robust economic growth.
Put another way, as China’s economy expanded, funded by capital flows which have now shrunk by 82%, its workers, employed by the global corporations on 50 pence a day, spent proportionately less of the country’s increasing value.
That’s hardly surprising, because a great deal of that increased national wealth was lent to the USA so that its population could borrow the money needed to consume the products made in China’s now largely silent sweatshops. Now they’re earning nothing in China, and unemployment in the US exceeds 10%.
A “return to growth” and global “economic recovery”? Nowhere on the horizon.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
The overwhelming vote for strike action by British Airways cabin staff, scheduled to start next week, has predictably drawn outrage from the media. Accusations range from “madness” (Daily Mail), to “suicidal” (Daily Telegraph) to workers “cheering the destruction of their own livelihoods (The Sun).
What has got the right-wing press so angry is that a well-organised group of workers is determined to protect jobs and decent wages built up over decades against unilateral changes to their contacts imposed by BA management. These cut staff numbers on flights, freeze pay and bring in even worse conditions for new entrants. No wonder that on an 80% turnout, the 13,500 cabin staff voted by more than nine to one for strike action.
But that is not what is supposed to happen at a time of economic recession and when your employer is in serious financial difficulties. Workers are supposed to identify their interests with those of the boss in a bid to keep the company going. As the Torygraph puts it: “This recession has seen many industries and workforces respond with great maturity – pay cuts, extended production breaks, part-time working – to keep companies going and protect jobs. Yet here we have BA cabin crew seemingly prepared to send their company to the wall in defence of their privileges.”
Privileges? What, an average wage of £29,000 and a job? Hardly “privileges” compared to say bankers who are back to massive bonus payouts courtesy of the taxpayer who has funded massive bailouts . Or compared, say, to BA chief executive Willie Walsh, who is on a “basic” salary of £735,000 a year. Let’s hope he can get by on that modest sum without having to scrimp and scrape.
BA lost £401m in the last financial year, and is set to lose even more in the current year. Its losses are thought to be around £1,000 per minute. BA announced earlier in the day that its pension fund deficit had increased by 75% in the past three years to £3.7bn.
The airline is in a financial crisis partly because of the recession and partly as a result of low-cost airlines taking its business. In other words, it’s a classic case of capitalist over-supply and ruthless competition that’s the cause of BA’s plight and a few workers taking a pay cut or working harder won’t affect that situation one jot.
Management is talking about a “fight to the finish” with cabin staff, who are in the Unite union and there is a sense of provocation in how the contract changes were introduced without agreement. Whether the union leaders are up to more than using the strike vote as a bargaining chip to reach a rotten compromise is another question.
BA is a prime example of the bankruptcy of the capitalist business model. The airline industry in particular is unsustainable, economically as well as ecologically. Now it has to drastically reduce capacity at the expense of the workforce in order to survive before it can find a way to “return to growth” and inflict further damage on the environment.
Britain’s transport infrastructure cannot be left in the hands of profit-obsessed shareholders and executives. BA workers should make a leap from defensive trade union action to reach out to other sections of workers hit by the crisis. They should seek to unite with those in other airlines and transport industries and draw up plans for the democratic ownership and control of the global travel infrastructure.
If they did that, BA workers would kick-start a movement that would be the basis for creating a sustainable, integrated transport system rather than one where competition prevails at the expense of jobs, passengers and the environment.
Monday, December 14, 2009
Even as you read this, writers and thinkers of all descriptions are seeking ways out. Then there are others who love to tell us that humanity is simply doomed and it’s not worth getting worked up about things. The leading protagonist of that school of thought is philosopher John Gray.
He has made a living of telling all and sundry that they are suffering from delusive fantasies. Naturally, he has no problem getting column inches in leading newspapers and magazines. In “The End of a Dream” (New Statesman), for example, he accused a whole range of politicians, including Clinton, Bush and Blair, and the general public of “a chronic inability to engage with reality”. His latest rant against humanity and was in yesterday’s Observer.
Gray claims that “passionate activist” Raj Patel, whose new book The Value of Nothing: How to reshape market society and redefine democracy, is unable to provide an alternative to the “hegemony of the market”. Gray says that Patel’s solutions are unviable because people, especially the oppressed, are too greedy to curb their desires for material wealth.
Well, whatever the merits or otherwise of Patel’s vision of a different, non-marketised approach, Gray, who likes to pose as the illusion-buster, is himself a complete prisoner of capitalist market dogmas. He cannot conceive of any kind of “value” that is not “price”. But even a child can point to values which cannot be priced – for example, mother love. And the value of something can remain the same while its price can vary wildly.
Humanist philosopher AC Grayling, has done a good job in dissecting the many sloppy errors in Gray’s book Black Mass, including the lumping together of Nazism, Bolshevism and Islamic theocracy and Gray’s dismissal of all progress in history.
The biggest illusion of all, and one that even well-meaning people who want change are prey to, is at the root of Gray’s philosophy. In his view, human action is first and foremost motivated by the satisfaction of individual needs and desires. And, human history is the story, in his opinion of “erroneous beliefs”.
But the real aim of Gray’s musings about the collapse of market worship is to promote his own ideology that human beings and human psychology can never change. We are prisoners of desire, delusion and what he calls “self-realisation”. In this view of things, there is only one outcome: humanity will destroy itself together with the planet in an unstoppable drive to extinction.
The fact is that Gray’s philosophy is nothing more than the flimsiest cover for an adulation of the capitalist status quo. He preaches that nothing can ever change because human nature is innately greedy and selfish. In the end, this is a fundamentalist, religious standpoint not a million miles away from all the nonsense about “original sin”.
Contemporary biology is showing more and more clearly how human beings are socially shaped and find that survival is essentially a collective, not an individual endeavour. For humans, self-interest is something that we share, not only with other human beings but with all life on the planet. More than that, humans are unique in their desire and ability to solve problems and challenges.
That is why A World to Win is working on a draft of a Manifesto of Revolutionary Solutions. We invite you to take part in shaping the manifesto – and the future.
A World to Win secretary
Friday, December 11, 2009
An event organised by A World to Win at the Whitechapel Gallery in London looked at the lessons of the revolutions of 1989 that brought down the Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe. One key point made, was that without the leadership offered by Mikhail Gorbachev and the group around him, events could not have happened in the way that they did.
Maintaining the status quo of bureaucratic power and the one-party state was not their priority; nor did they believe it was the only route open to them. The hopeless war in Afghanistan, the crisis in the economy and the civil corruption represented by the Chernobyl disaster were straws in the wind that Gorbachev understood. As a result, he created a break in the Stalinist wall, through which the masses of Eastern Europe poured.
Is this the type of leader that is present in Copenhagen where, it has been suggested, the future of the planet is being decided? Clearly not. The maintenance of the capitalist status quo is their be-all and end-all. They have watched it descend into economic chaos, on a global scale, and yet they are determined to carry on.
Their sole commitment is not to democracy, or “the people” or the earth’s environment, but to the global corporations and the fossilised perspective that they represent the only possible economic form available to humanity.
Capitalism - by its nature - must eventually process the whole substance of the eco-system, into profit. It is an anti-evolutionary system, dragging nature backwards from abundant, evolving life to the brink of no-life, as the latest update of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species shows.
The list reveals that 21% of all known mammals, 30% of all known amphibians, 12% of all known birds and 32% of all known gymnosperms (conifers and cycads) are threatened with extinction. Sea shellfish and molluscs are threatened by the increased acidification of the seas, with serious impacts higher up the marine food chain. Data from the conservation organisation BirdLife shows that over 400 bird species have already suffered climate-driven impacts.
“The scientific evidence of a serious extinction crisis is mounting,” says Jane Smart, Director of IUCN’s Biodiversity Conservation Group. “January sees the launch of the International Year of Biodiversity. The latest analysis of the IUCN Red List shows the 2010 target to reduce biodiversity loss will not be met. It’s time for governments to start getting serious about saving species and make sure it’s high on their agendas for next year, as we’re rapidly running out of time.”
Outside the official conference in Copenhagen there are many people who recognise these realities. One the emerging figures of the Conference is Di-Aping, a Sudanese diplomat who said: "We will not walk out of the talks at this late hour, because we will not allow the failure of Copenhagen. But we will not sign an inequitable deal; we will not accept a deal that condemns 80% of the world population to further suffering and injustice."
Let’s see if he means it, if any of these leaders – including those for whose countries climate change represents a threat to their very existence – have the courage to walk away from a dirty political deal, as these African delegates and campaigners demanded.
Is there is any chance of a break down of the “business-as-usual” consensus inside the conference, which would greatly help those of us trying to break the status quo outside? We shall see. But with it, or without it, we must seek answers to climate change outside of the existing capitalist structures because they are the problem and not the solution.
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Chancellor Darling’s pre-budget report (PBR) is a confidence trick aimed at disguising the massive cuts in spending that either New Labour or the Tories (or a national government?) will impose when next year’s general election is over.
Stretched by the deepening global crisis pulling him one way and an election pulling the other, Darling postponed publicly announcing the detail of inevitable slashing cuts in public spending needed to reduce the government’s deficit, hiding them behind short-term deceitful protection for schools, health and policing.
Yet deep cuts lie like ticking bombs buried deep in the detail, awaiting the outcome of the election to be detonated. Meanwhile, working people will start to pay for bailing out the bankers through higher taxes and pay cuts.
The PBR itself was shot through with deceptions. Darling’s projections are based upon hopes of a return to profitable growth at the end of the year, rising to 3% in 2011. This is an optimistic fantasy that contrasts sharply with his forced admission that the 4.75% shrinkage of the economy now expected this year is worse than he expected.
Twinned with a borrowing requirement expected to spiral to £175 billion by 2014, the measures announced in the PBR report fall well short of the devastation that must come as Darling’s hopes once again fail to materialise.
The headlined one-off tax on bonuses paid to top bankers is intended to pacify an enraged electorate, and may fool the media. But it is surely obvious that if any of the paltry estimated £500 million tax is raised it will in any case be funded by further bail-outs. Accountants are already hard at work on ways of avoiding it.
Real incomes are set to fall sharply. A two-year 1% cap on public sector wage increases plus an 0.5% increase in National Insurance contributions – what the employers call a tax on jobs - will cross with sharply rising prices beginning in January when the temporary 15% VAT rate returns to 17.5%. The lower rate was designed to stimulate spending, so the resumption of the higher rate can only deepen the recession, and add to unemployment which is already expected to continue rising for years.
British capitalism is in the deepest and longest recession in its history. But it is far from alone. The Irish government isn’t facing an election for another two years, so its budget announced simultaneously gives a clearer flavour of what is to come: a 7% cut in the total budget will decimate public services. 400,000 state workers - a fifth of the country's work force - will suffer pay cuts ranging from 5% to 15%.
Both increased taxes and public spending cuts will be needed to reduce the spiralling government debt incurred by successive and mounting borrowing used to prop up the banks. This has been New Labour’s contribution to the emergency life-support demanded by their masters who control the vast wealth of the global corporations and financial institutions.
Another way is possible. The power that global corporations use to exploit cheap labour and deplete the world’s resources must give way to a mass movement pursuing revolutionary solutions. Productive resources must be taken into social ownership and directed towards meeting democratically-determined needs.
Financial markets must be transformed into not-for-profit support for a global system of fair trade optimising local production to minimise unnecessary shipping. Budgets for the distribution of wealth will be determined through a democratic process that starts with local committees of producers and consumers.
By taking part in developing a Manifesto of Revolutionary Solutions you can help shape the future and prevent the spending cuts devastation being prepared behind closed doors in Whitehall.
Wednesday, December 09, 2009
Swine flu is big business for pharmaceuticals like Roche, the manufacturer of the antiviral drug Tamiflu and the other giant corporations now producing vaccines to sell to desperate governments. Whether the products actually work is another matter and getting the trial data is nigh on impossible.
Big Pharma is effectively a secret society that owes its gigantic profits to the National Health Service in Britain and its equivalent in other countries. Take Roche and Tamiflu. Doctors say that are unable to assess how effective the anti-flu drug is because the company will not release evidence obtained from trials.
In fact, an independent review published by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) has found no evidence that Tamiflu can prevent healthy people with flu from suffering complications such as pneumonia. Although the drug may cut a day or so off the illness, it is impossible to say without access to Roche’s data. "Governments around the world have spent billions of pounds on a drug that the scientific community now finds itself unable to judge," said Dr Fiona Godlee, editor of the BMJ. Sales of Tamiflu have netted Roche sales of £1.6bn this year alone. The British government has stockpiled enough for half the population.
A second review was carried out at Birmingham University by Professor Nick Freemantle and Dr Melanie Calvert. Freemantle said he was surprised to see such a widespread use of Tamiflu and added: “But I suppose that once you've gone and bought lots of doses, then it's a bit like the situation with gun control in the US. If you have a gun in the house, it is much easier to use it. But it does not mean it's the right thing to do."
But it’s not just Roche who are cashing in. Other Big Pharma corporations are doing nicely out of producing vaccines directed at the H1N1 swine flu virus. Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis has opened a large-scale, cell-culture manufacturing plant in America – backed by $487 million in federal funding. The plant will be able to produce 50 million doses of seasonal flu vaccine and 150 million doses of pandemic vaccine.
One of the reasons that vaccines are back in fashion is that patents are running out on the industry’s core prescription drug business. Some $135 billion in prescription drug sales will lose patent protection in the next five years, and there's little in drug companies' pipelines to replace those sales, according to health industry analysts like Alan Sheppard of consultants IMS.
Big Pharma’s claim that it is a socially responsible industry that has to make huge profits to fund research into new drugs that are then made available to the public belongs in the realm of fantasy. For example, a study by two York University researchers last year estimates the US pharmaceutical industry spends almost twice as much on promotion as it does on research and development, contrary to the industry's claim. The study found that the industry spent 24.4% of the sales dollar on promotion, versus 13.4% for research and development, as a percentage of US domestic sales.
Big Pharma is a cash rich industry – the top 20 corporations have an estimated $150 billion in resources – that is now more interested in protecting patents than developing new drugs against common diseases, or in persuading people to buy “lifestyle” drugs they don’t really need. Scientists say that little new has come out of the industry over the last decade. Meanwhile, universities are starved of resources and money devoted to research has fallen in real terms. Big Pharma has an unhealthy grip on society’s collective throats that requires a strong dose of revolutionary medicine to loosen.
Tuesday, December 08, 2009
Last night’s screening by ITV of Inside MI5: The Real Spooks, could easily be dismissed on the grounds that: “Well, the secret intelligence agencies are hardly likely to tell the truth about themselves.” But in taking this approach you could throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Ever since “5”, as insiders call it, decided to allow historian Christopher Andrew to view its archives and to publish his book The Defence of the Realm: the authorised history of MI5, a few chinks of light have appeared which give glimpses – as in a mirror darkly - of how those paid to spy on us go about their tasks.
Sir Stephen Lander, MI5 director between 1996 and 2002, admitted that the security service has grown considerably since its formation, employing 3,800 people. Of course, MI5 is only one part of the spider-like network of secret agencies which cost the taxpayer around £1.6 billion per year. Lander was quick to dismiss the wildly successful TV series Spooks for portraying MI5 as six people and a chief.
There was a convenient focus on the distant past. But evidently the agencies are still haunted by the Cambridge group of spies which ran rings around British intelligence during World War II and the Cold War. Probably the worst fallout from this episode was that Blunt, Burgess, Maclean, Philby and Cairncross served their Soviet masters from conviction and not for personal gain.
Lander claimed that he wanted to correct “a lot of unjust criticism” that MI5 had suffered. He and Andrew were insistent that accusations it had plotted against former Prime Minister Harold Wilson were untrue and painted Wilson as obsessively paranoid. Clearly the agency was shaken by the large body of evidence which has demonstrated that the Wilson Labour government was seriously destabilised by the intelligence agencies. Former MI5 officer, Peter Wright, whose book Spycatcher was banned by the Thatcher government, also came in for a lot of flack for writing about the plot against Wilson.
But when it came to MI5’s role in the execution of Provisional IRA members Danny McCann, Sean Savage and Mairéad Farrell in 1988 it was crystal clear that three unarmed people had been shot in cold blood with no warning. This shocking incident came to light through Death on the Rock, despite the Thatcher governments furious attempts to prevent it from being broadcast.
MI5 involvement in the following, more recent events, didn’t rate a mention:
• surveillance of National Union of Mineworkers’ leader Arthur Scargill during the 1984-1985 miners’ strike (though the smearing of union leader Jack Jones as a Soviet agent featured prominently)
• the 1984 case of MI5 officer Michael Bettany, who was convicted of acting as an agent for the Soviet Union. Bettany was sentenced to 23 years in jail of which he served 15
• the 1996 case of MI5 officer David Shayler, who accused MI6 of being involved in an assassination plot against Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi and spent time in prison after being charged under the Official Secrets Act
• the operation of agents inside legal left-wing political organisations, the anti-war movement and ecological campaigns.
These issues remain too close and too sensitive for comfort. But far from ignoring the strange spectacle of these agencies becoming “transparent” we should keep on peering inside the weird world that they inhabit. Because as surely as night follows day, the “defence of the realm” amounts to the protection of the capitalist political and economic system by whatever means deemed necessary. As the economic, financial and ecological crises come together in a way that threatens the stability of capitalism, you can be sure that MI5 agents are hard at work on “solutions” that don’t have our wellbeing top of the agenda.
A World to Win secretary
Monday, December 07, 2009
The fact that millions of people in Britain cannot cope with everyday life, as revealed in a landmark report today, is testimony to the deeply alienated, dog-eat-dog society that has emerged after three decades of intense globalisation and commercialisation of just about every aspect of society.
What has resulted is a more deeply alienated Britain, with people out of touch with themselves and with others. In a 294-page research study, the Young Foundation’s Sinking and Swimming – understanding Britain’s unmet needs combines statistical data, research based on conversations with citizens as well as professionals, case studies and reflections on both past patterns of need and future possibilities.
The report finds that health inequalities, inequalities of wealth and inequalities of income have widened while a large minority of teenagers (one in eight) remains detached from the education system and the labour market.
It adds: “Over two and a half million people remain on incapacity benefit and employment and support allowance. And the very poorest have seen their living standards stagnate or even decline. Over the last year the recession has raised unemployment, put downward pressure on incomes and will soon be followed by sharp cuts in public spending which are likely to affect the poorest most.”
Between one in six and one in four people in the UK experience mental health problems at some point in their lives. The number of prescriptions for anti-depressant drugs increased from 9 million in 1991 to 34 million in 2007. There are also important “psycho-social needs” – some people have no one to talk to day-to-day or about important issues, the report adds.
Unsurprisingly, the groups most likely to have acute and persistent needs include the unemployed, lone parents and many living with disabilities, as well as half a million irregular migrants, 140,000 child runaways, a third of a million problematic drug users and 80,000 looked after children.
The report acknowledges the “rise of individualism” as a factor and explains: “A more overtly meritocratic society has encouraged people to be more ambitious for themselves, but also made them more vulnerable to failures – and more likely to blame themselves (rather than fate or the class system) if things go wrong. Some of the shock absorbers – from faith to family – that helped us cope in the past have atrophied.”
"The UK [is a] largely happy country, but one with many unhappy people … Too many parts of British society are brittle, vulnerable to shocks, stressed and … close to the edge," says the report, which is backed by 13 charitable foundations. Despite material abundance, society's ability to meet psychological and psycho-social needs "appears to have declined" the report concludes. Among the recommendations are that unemployed teenagers and refugees should be given a mobile phone and internet access as part of their benefits package.
There are, however, no technological fixes to the deep malaise that the report reveals. Alienation is not a psychological construct but a reflection in people’s consciousness of the underlying social and political structures of capitalism. For example, where the welfare state was perhaps more generous and supportive, the modern market state built by the Tories and New Labour is harsh and driven by cost-cutting and driving people into unsuitable, low-skill, low-paid jobs.
The intense individualism and extreme competitiveness that can wreck people’s lives is manufactured by advertising and TV “reality” shows in order to sustain the illusion that everyone can “do well” if they only want to. In practice, a small group have actually done really well while the vast majority have to get by on credit card debt. No longer, however. Most of the research for the report was carried out before the financial crash and economic recession, which has left an estimated 1.7 million people taking a large pay cut or working reduced hours to avoid losing their jobs. With the financial crisis far from over, brittle Britain is heading for a collective breakdown.
Friday, December 04, 2009
How a government that has saddled taxpayers with liabilities of up to £850 billion – roughly £40,000 for each household – for bailing out the banks can now parade itself as the party for ordinary people as opposed to the “Tory toffs”, is beyond belief.
The bailouts of the banks are the largest, swiftest transfer of wealth in the history of British capitalism. And it was carried through by New Labour which, in turn, had presided over the same banks as they built fortunes on what proved to be calamitous mountains of debt.
In July 2008, while still chancellor, Gordon Brown hailed the dawn of a new “golden age” in the City of London; a few months later, this time as prime minister, he was pouring money down the throats of the bankers to the point where they were almost drowning in taxpayers’ cash.
The government spent £117 billion buying shares in banks and lending directly to financial institutions, a National Audit Office (NAO) investigation published today calculates. That represents a liability of £5,530 for every one of the 21.1 million families in Britain. When are other commitments are added in, the total rises to £850 billion.
And where has all this money gone? Despite being taken into state control, Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and Lloyds-TSB have failed to meet targets for lending, according to the NAO. In effect, although the NAO naturally doesn’t draw the same conclusion, taxpayers have financed the transfer of cash to other banks and the write-off of so-called “toxic assets”.
All to do what? Preserve a banking system that operates entirely in the interests of shareholders and senior staff and one that dazzled the government so much that the Treasury gave RBS clean bill of health less than a week before having to bail it out in October 2008, according to the NAO report.
Joining the queue for state hand-outs were financial advisers and lawyers who between them shared £107 million of taxpayers’ money in fees for services and advice during the crisis, and could receive a further £5.8 million in bonus payments. Nice work if you can get it.
Now the board of the largely state-owned RBS is threatening to quit unless it can pay out large bonuses to senior staff. New Labour is caught like a rabbit in the headlights. It can’t afford to alienate the bankers who might then move out of London to friendlier environments, and whose support helped to create New Labour in the first place. Yet public anger against the bankers is mounting as it dawns on people that massive public spending cuts are on their way after the forthcoming general election – whoever wins.
In the end, the laws of capitalist competition will prevail over the hot air from ministers like Lord Myners, himself a former fund manager and chairman of Europe’s largest property company.
The “choice” between New Labour and the Tories boils down to no choice at all. Just as Blair and then Brown carried on where the previous Tory governments had left off, Cameron’s New Tories will, if elected, deepen the class divisions and gross inequality they inherit from the present government.
The economic crisis is intensifying, as today’s announcement of the closure of the Corus steelmaking plant on Teesside shows. As far as the financial system goes, no one really knows the size of the huge debt overhang out there and may make the credit crunch look like a slight blip when the reckoning takes place. While the main parties play their political games ahead of the election, the threat to all our futures continues to mount.
Thursday, December 03, 2009
That much is clear from their abject failure to take the kind of action that would cut carbon emissions in any serious way. Leading climate scientists like James Hansen admit that Copenhagen is doomed and even say that no agreement would be better than the half-baked deals on the table.
These are centred around widely-discredited carbon trading schemes and carbon offsets. Capitalism doesn’t get more obscene that creating markets to buy and sell the very stuff that is killing off the planet’s life support systems. And it is not as if the schemes work.
As Carbon Trade Watch has shown, carbon trading does not actually reduce any emissions. It simply gives corporations greater room to manoeuvre through the sale of permits. Instead of cleaning up its act, one polluter can then trade these permits with another who might make “equivalent” changes more cheaply.
The EU Emissions Trading Scheme, the world’s largest carbon market (worth $68 billion in 2008) has consistently failed to “cap” emissions while the UN’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) based on carbon offsets, which are also traded, routinely favours environmentally ineffective and socially unjust projects.
Hansen, who heads the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, says scathingly of carbon trading and offsetting: "This is analogous to the indulgences that the Catholic church sold in the middle ages. The bishops collected lots of money and the sinners got redemption. Both parties liked that arrangement despite its absurdity. That is exactly what's happening. We've got the developed countries who want to continue more or less business as usual and then these developing countries who want money and that is what they can get through offsets.”
So Copenhagen is aimed at preserving the status quo, whereby the very same market forces that have driven climate change are the only devices on offer for tackling exactly the same problem! We should not be surprised, however. The United Nations which hosts the summit has teamed up with big business in a “compact”, urging them to find “green solutions” towards a “sustainable economy”.
No treaty that binds countries to cut carbon emissions or face international sanctions will ever be signed so long as big business rules the roost at the UN as well as in the cabinet rooms of the world’s major governments. No treaty will ever be signed so long as the global economy remains driven by year-on-year increases in corporate profits and the relentless expansion of the production of commodities.
For Brown, Obama and the rest the priority is economic “recovery” based on a “return to growth”. In other words, back to the destruction of resources through an expansion of fossil-fuel based production and consumption. And they say there is such a thing as “sustainable capitalism”!
At Copenhagen, Climate Justice Action (CJA) wants to take over the summit for a day and set up a Peoples Assembly. The Danish state will no doubt try and prevent real voices disrupting the cosy, meaningless deliberations of the summit but CJA’s demand for “system change, not climate change” is absolutely right.
Copenhagen’s failure demonstrates clearly that the present capitalist system and its supine leaders have lost all legitimacy and authority. Creating permanent Peoples Assemblies in Britain and other countries as a step to transferring power out of the hands of the political, economic and financial elites and creating a democratic, sustainable society is definitely the way forward.
Wednesday, December 02, 2009
Imagine, if you will, a global society of communities whose citizens wake each day filled with enthusiasm about the prospect of working together, co-operating on the land and in the buildings they own to meet their needs for food, clothing, housing, education, health and transport.
These people don’t have “jobs”. There’s no employer, nor any employment contract. Their work is a contribution willingly given to the satisfaction of the needs of their community. The work they do entitles them to a share of the collective product.
These citizens aren’t living and working to pay off accumulated debt. They aren’t continuously bombarded with enticements to consume more products they never knew they needed. They've broken the addiction to salt, sugar and fat. None of the value they generate during the day is siphoned off for distribution as profits to external shareholders.
They meet regularly to review their needs and plan what they will do to improve their lives and communities. Because they are in control they can ensure that the way they live them is consistent with the continuation of life on the planet for generations. They aren’t driven by an economic system towering over them, demanding growth and bringing catastrophic impacts.
Some 150 years ago, when the industrial revolution brought intolerable conditions for the newly-urbanised workers and their families, 28 artisans, mostly weavers, in Rochdale near the city of Manchester in England formed a society on just these principles. Today it is a vast, worldwide movement encompassing hundreds of millions.
There are over 4,300 co-operatives in the UK alone, with over 11 million members and total assets of £8.5 billion. Together they create and sustain nearly 200,000 jobs and contribute some £27 billion in turnover. The most significant in terms of numbers are the consumer and worker co-operatives, co-operatives consortiums, agricultural co-operatives and housing co-operatives. The Co-operative is now the UK's biggest farmer.
Collectively-owned, democratically-controlled credit unions are one of the financial arms of the 150 year-old co-operative movement. Worldwide there are 186 million members of 54,000 credit unions in 97 countries. Credit unions offer cheap loans to their members who save regularly. Unlike the world of fantasy finance, credit unions lend less than they have on deposit.
The survival and worldwide development of the movement is a remarkable testimony to its strength, resilience and sustainability. The movement is a testimony to its own historical necessity.
But for many who share its principles the old-style co-op seems inadequate to the urgent tasks presented by climate change, resource depletion, economic and financial meltdown, and a clutch of life-threatening pandemics.
So a new movement is spreading rapidly throughout the world, calling itself “transition” and reinventing the very same principles of co-operation that have bound people together throughout human history. Moves are afoot in Wales at least, to bring the two together in a potentially powerful coalition – a co-operative transition which could direct itself to achieving the profound systemic changes now urgently needed.
Meanwhile, in the Welsh Assembly, David Melding, Conservative chair of a new cross-party group, sees a bigger role for co-ops but only within the framework of the status quo. Melding denied that the co-operative movement was unfamiliar ground for Conservatives adding. "It seeks to enhance the forces of capitalism." This will be news to many in the co-operative movement in Wales who see themselves as opponents of capital, dealing with its worst effects.
Amidst the slide to economic slump and state bankruptcy, a moment of political truth is approaching for the co-operative movement in Britain. It needs to break its long association with Labour and form new alliances to enable it realise its full potential by being part of a transition to a society based entirely on co-operation and not competition.
Tuesday, December 01, 2009
Today is the moment of truth for the Obama presidency so far as prominent supporters like filmmaker Michael Moore are concerned. If, as expected, the president announces that America is sending another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, he will burn his boats with many who campaigned on his behalf.
Obama has come under tremendous public pressure from the joint chiefs of staff to despatch tens of thousands of more soldiers and marines. The head of US forces in Afghanistan, Gen Stanley McChrystal, has ignored political protocol and gone public with his demands.
Tonight Obama will use the dramatic backdrop of the West Point military academy to accede to most of McChrystal’s demands. This, according to award-winning Moore, will make him the new "war president". In an open letter to the president, the creator of films like Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 warns Obama:
“With just one speech … you will turn a multitude of young people who were the backbone of your campaign into disillusioned cynics. You will teach them what they've always heard is true – that all politicians are alike.”
Moore accuses Obama of “throwing bones” to the Republicans and warns that his corporate backers will abandon him “as soon as it is clear you are a one-term president and that the nation will be safely back in the hands of the usual idiots who do their bidding. That could be Wednesday morning.”
Moore’s anguish about the direction of the Obama presidency is heartfelt and reflects a growing disenchantment with a government that, while not as authoritarian as the Bush administration, defers to the same vested interests that always own and run America – whoever is in the White House: the banks, insurance companies and the “military-industrial complex”. This term was first coined by President Dwight Eisenhower, himself a former general. In his farewell address in 1961, he warned:
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defence with our peaceful methods and goals so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
Well, the subsequent wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate who pulls the strings in America. Afghanistan alone has cost about $250 billion so far and Obama’s decision – in defiance of polls which show a clear majority against the war – will add another $35 billion a year – that’s about a million dollars a soldier.
While the unemployed from Chicago will die on a foreign field, others will reap the profits. Millions more will lose their jobs and homes as the recession turns to slump. Better to give the unemployed something to do, even if it is killing Afghans in the name of the neo-colonial aim of “nation building”.
Moore doesn’t say what Americans should do next when Obama – whose opposition to the Iraq war was a key reason for his 2008 victory – sells his soul to the generals. No surprise there. What we are perhaps witnessing is the death of liberal America, which has always pinned its hopes on the Democratic Party as an easy option to building an alternative to the two capitalist parties. The end of the cosy, partisan political system would be no bad thing if the opportunity is seized to build a movement that will truly transform American society and put an end to the military-industrial complex once and for all.
Monday, November 30, 2009
The shocking reality facing workers who assert their rights emerged at a conference called by the Institute of Employment Rights (IER) over the weekend. At the heart of the matter are a series of judgements by the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The ECJ was dubbed “the new spectre haunting Europe” at the event attended by over 100 trade unionists at the Trade Union Congress headquarters.
Carolyn Jones, Keith Ewing and John Hendy of the Institute cited several key recent judgements by the court:
* The Viking case against the International Transport Workers Federation and the Finnish Seaman’s Union (December 2007)
* The Laval case in which the ECJ prevented Swedish trade unions from taking strike action to force a Latvian company to pay its workers the going Swedish rate (December 2007)
* The Rüffert case in which the court decided against the state of Lower Saxony in Germany (April 2008), ruling that a Polish contractor could not be required to observe local collective agreements.
IER president Ewing said that these cases “struck at the heart of trade union activities”. The ECJ was using European Union treaties to uphold the right of businesses to “freedom of establishment” over the right of trade unions to pursue industrial action.
In a recent court action against BA, the British Airline Pilots Association were legally stymied, even though they had voted overwhelmingly (86%) for strike action when BA’s Open Skies service threatened their pay and conditions.
The issues which sparked the Lindsey oil refineries strikes earlier this year revealed the impact of the Laval case because it allowed employers to undercut local pay and conditions agreements. These and other issues are explained in detail in the IER’s new book.
Ewing told the conference that the latest drastic legal restrictions on the capacity of a trade union to take action on behalf of its members had dragged trade union rights a century back to the period of the notorious Taff Vale dispute of 1901. Then, a court ruling against the rail workers made their union liable for losses incurred during a strike.
Both Ewing and Hendy raised the historic issues involved in the legal fetters placed on collective organisation. Today’s struggles had “echoes” of the period when the unions formed their own political party, the Labour Party, in order to change the law, they noted.
Ewing proposed that the unions should exploit the fact that the ECJ’s decisions were in breach of International Labour Organisation rules and the European Convention of Human Rights which guarantees the freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike. “If they cannot persuade the government to protect our fundamental freedoms or collective agreements, then trade unions should use their political funds to pay for litigation,” he said.
But, as one dissident voice at the conference, a member of the University and College Union noted, to be surprised that the ECJ should rule in favour of employers is disingenuous. “The EU was always about free markets,” she said. New Labour’s “trade liberalisation” project has committed Britain to all international trade agreements which protect global corporations and employers against workers.
Yet since 1997 New Labour has received £100 million from the trade unions despite the fact that it has kept all the Tory anti-union laws on the statute books and further tightened the shackles.
The trade unions are at the 11th hour when it comes to breaking with New Labour and campaign for a political movement based on securing and developing fundamental democratic and social rights in a struggle against the nascent European capitalist state and the corporations it protects. Without such a perspective, the trade union movement is in serious danger of losing its way completely.
A World to Win secretary
Friday, November 27, 2009
Dubai was a property dream literally built on sand and borrowed money, where the rich could enjoy the sun and watch their assets soar in value. But like so much of recent capitalism, it has proved more mirage than substance.
Dubai World, the emirate’s main holding company, has asked for a six-month debt holiday from international bond holders because this oil-free state simply doesn’t have the cash. Result? Turmoil on world stock markets has returned with a vengeance as investors consider whether Dubai’s virtual default is the beginning of another round of the global financial crisis.
This is a story about a “boom” based on debt. Sounds familiar? It ought to because it’s a microcosm of how the consumer boom in the advanced capitalist countries was financed.
In a bid to emulate its oil-rich neighbours, Dubai borrowed heavily to build up a non-oil economy based on property, trade and tourism. The estimated total debt is estimated at $80 billion, although no one knows for sure.
Hotels soared into the sky, luxury homes were built on man-made lagoon islands and no expense was spared to build a ski slope. The environmental cost of making snow in Dubai is mind boggling.
Dubai doubled in size and house prices almost quadrupled in 2002-07, since when property prices have halved. Trade and tourism has suffered because of the recession and plans for turning Dubai into a regional financial centre have come to grief in the midst of the global credit crunch.
Today the cranes stand idle as construction projects have ground to halt. Skyscrapers are empty and apparently the airport parking lot is full of cars abandoned by expatriates who have lost their shirts in the property crash.
Graham Turner, of consultancy GFC Economics, said: "It gives you a picture of the fact that credit problem persists, despite everything that's been done. Despite having oil, it's still the case that many of these countries had explosive credit growth. It's very clear that in 2010, we've got plenty more problems in store."
That’s putting it mildly Graham! The near-collapse of the financial system in 2008 was only avoided by reducing interest rates to almost zero, printing vast quantities of electronic money and building up record levels of government deficits. Far from “restoring growth”, these measures have failed to prevent unemployment from soaring, especially in the United States. Many banks, notably in Germany, are still in some difficulties and the non-performing debt still overhanging the financial system is incalculable.
The amount of new money sloshing around the system has also fuelled a stock market boom, where share prices have soared by 50%. Andrew Clare, professor of asset management at Cass Business School, said: "I just don't understand the basis for the market rally: equity prices had gone too far. Investors are underpricing all the risks that are out there, and this is just one of them. Some of those risks are going to come home to roost, and this is just the first.
"And next year they're going to have the shock of realising that interest rates can go up as well as down; and you've also got places like the UK, where taxes are going to have to go up and public spending will have to be cut – and the US, too, has some difficult decisions to make."
Behind Dubai come countries like Ireland, Ukraine and Greece with sovereign debt they may not be able to repay. The United Kingdom won’t be far behind either. Dubai’s is not the only economy built on sand, speculation and other people’s money.
Thursday, November 26, 2009
It’s time to cut through the confusion generated by the publication of emails hacked from the climate research centre at the University of East Anglia. Even George Monbiot has lost his cool, calling for the centre’s boss Phil Jones to resign because of some remarks in one of the emails.
It is true that the figures suggest that over recent years, measures of air temperature show cooling, not warming and scientists are struggling to explain it. Some say it is due to the effects of El Nino – a weather phenomenon that has its roots in the waters off the coast of South America - and is about to change.
Indeed it may be that 2009 will reverse the trend to be one of the hottest since records began.
But the climate change deniers always pick and choose their indicators, in any case. The fact that there is a flotilla of icebergs in the south Pacific seems to have passed them by. And that the Arctic ice is thinning and breaking up. And that the sea is now so acidic that its ability to absorb carbon is compromised. And that the deforestation of the planet is causing massive emissions in itself and also reducing the planet’s ability to absorb carbon. And that the permafrosts of Siberia are beginning to melt, pouring stored carbon into the atmosphere.
What the deniers are arguing, in effect, is that carbon emissions may be rising but it doesn’t matter and that is patently untrue. In spite of all the political compromises it had to make, the world’s scientists organised in the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change are clear that carbon emissions are damaging to the climate.
Overall rises in air temperature are, in any case, not the be-all-and-end-all in mapping climate change. Also crucial are more localised but undeniable changes in climate which are already affecting people’s lives and livelihoods. Should we just ignore these? Should we close our eyes to extreme weather, drought, forest fires, floods, rising sea levels and farmers forced to switch from crops grown for generations?
The fact that the hacking of the research centre’s emails took place just before the Copenhagen summit on climate change may well be suspicious and politically motivated, but not to worry – the Copenhagen summit is not going to deliver anything in any case.
What we need to hold on to is a holistic conception of the ecological crisis, which understands that the system of production itself is unsustainable.
Wasteful, profit-driven capitalism is creating not only global warming, but also poverty, injustice and the extinction of hundreds of species and eco-systems. To keep capitalism on the road, the whole substance of the planet would need to be sacrificed to it, and that’s the crisis we need to deal with, sooner rather than later.
The shameful numbers game which is going on in advance of Copenhagen shows that the global leaders are prepared to forfeit the lives of millions to the economic status quo that has caused this ecological crisis, in all its diverse forms.
In the last few days both America and China have put a sort of figure on emissions reductions. But since President Obama has already made it clear that there will be no binding agreement at Copenhagen, these are the REALLY meaningless figures we should be worrying about.
We should support Professor Phil Jones and his team at East Anglia and the crucial work they are doing. When rotten politicians and bankers the world over survive scandals and corruption but keep their jobs, why would we sacrifice a group of people who are truly useful?
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Nine million people in the UK don’t have access to credit from banks, so have no choice but to use rip-off lenders. The cost of a £100 loan with a company such as Provident Financial can be £49.50 – nearly 50% of the amount borrowed, or an APR of 545.2%.
A loan from a payday lender costs even more; to borrow £100, lenders charge £25 for one month – an annual percentage rate of nearly 1,300%. These lenders charge whatever they want – the sky is the limit, according to a new report from the New Economics Foundation (NEF) launched today.
Two thousand people from more than 150 civil society organisations will gather at the Barbican Centre in the City of London this evening to call for a cap on interest rates and the extension of the London “living wage” (a paltry £7.60 an hour). Concerned at the impact of the financial crisis on ordinary people, the capital’s largest civic alliance is calling for the measures in order to “soften the impact” of the financial crisis.
Among those responding to the five-point call by London Citizens will be politicians from the main parties (Stephen Timms, New Labour's Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Greg Hands, Tory Shadow Treasury Minister, Vince Cable, Lib Dems, Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer), representatives of leading financiers (the British Bankers’ Association, the Corporation of London, Barclays, KPMG) and bodies such as Fair Finance and moneysavingexpert.com.
The NEF study by Veronika Thiel reveals that three million UK households pay hundreds of thousands to “legal loan sharks” because of lack of access to credit from banks. London Citizens and NEF argue that the UK should follow the example of major European countries and introduce a 20% cap on the cost of lending by financial institutions, thus making borrowing at interest rates of 50% or 500% illegal.
“Despite historically low interest rates and a massive taxpayer bailout of the banks, ordinary people across London have been forced into the hands of legal loan sharks in order to gain access to credit,” says Paul Regan, London Citizens trustee. “It’s time to restore responsibility.”
When was this golden age of “responsibility” to which we should return, you may ask? Forget about loans sharks for a moment, who have existed since time immemorial. Mainstream bankers do not hesitate to repossess homeowners behind with their mortgages, refuse small businesses vital bridging loans, impose harsh penalties on those who stray into overdraft territory, sack their staff, speculate with other people’s money and generally act as a millstone around society’s neck.
The state’s “responsibility” is to the bankers and whatever cosmetic changes may be promised in relation to loan sharks, that won’t change. In fact, it’s about to get a whole lot worse as politicians of all parties busy themselves preparing plans for an historically unprecedented assault on public expenditure.
Only hours before the London meeting more evidence of New Labour’s real priorities was revealed. One year ago, at the direst moment of the financial meltdown they approved £61.6bn in emergency funds to the Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS. The banks and the authorities decided to keep the operation secret. Alistair Darling, chancellor, said he had shared the Bank’s assessment that disclosing details of the lending to the two banks “would seriously jeopardise the financial stability of the system as a whole”. There's clearly no lack of credit for the bankers.
London Citizens are well meaning in their bid to curb the loan sharks. But the system is broken and now is the time to ask the bigger questions: What exactly is the capitalist financial system for? What benefits, if any, does it bring to the majority of people? Why should it be bailed out? Why not close it down and start again on the basis of mutually-owned and run banks that serve society?
Tuesday, November 24, 2009
The spectre of a hung Parliament – where no party has an overall majority – is a possibility when the votes are counted after next year’s general election. It’s the last thing the ruling classes want and could open the door for quite a sinister development.
While the Tories remain ahead in the polls, their lead appears to be shrinking. Although they would probably emerge as the largest party, the Tories would not be able to form a majority government without the support of the Lib Dems. Nick Clegg, the Lib Dems’ leader, has already indicated his willingness to back the Tories rather than New Labour.
David Cameron’s New Tories need a swing bigger than the one that brought Thatcher to power in 1979 to win an outright majority. Winning an extra 117 seats would, for example, leave the Tories with an overall majority of just one. With virtually no support in Scotland or Wales, winning a comfortable majority could prove an electoral mountain too high to climb.
For Philip Johnston, the Daily Telegraph’s home affairs editor, a hung parliament is a ”nightmare scenario”, one made more possible by the fact nearly 100 of the 646 MPs in Parliament are from parties other than the Tories and New Labour.
The cat was set among the pigeons last week by former Tory chancellor Ken Clarke, when he remarked: “I do think that in the middle of an acute national crisis a hung parliament would be one of the biggest disasters we could suffer … that would be a bigger danger than a Labour victory.”
Clarke was, of course, referring to the massive state debt resulting from bailing out the bankers, the unparalleled programme of public spending cuts that all the major parties are proposing, alongside rising unemployment, especially among young people and a deepening recession.
In the event of an inconclusive election, it is questionable whether financial markets, for example, would be willing to lend a weak government the £220 billion it needs to borrow next year. This could precipitate a run on the pound. As commentators have noted, the only lender remaining then would be the International Monetary Fund.
Why should we be bothered about all this? Well, an economic collapse that coincides with a political crisis is the recipe for a “government of national unity” – or a coalition of the three major parties. If this sounds like a wartime arrangement you would be right. Except on this occasion, the “enemy” would be public sector workers and those who use services. The living standards of the vast majority would be targeted in order to save capitalism at our expense.
As in wartime, a national government might find it necessary to “suspend” democratic rights to oppose what would amount to a Parliamentary dictatorship. No doubt the security service MI5 is compiling lists of people that might prove troublesome in such circumstances.
Of course, none of this may happen and a government with a working majority might result from the election. It would, of course, enjoy the support of the other parties as it inflicted the pain of the crisis on ordinary people. So one conclusion is – whatever way people vote, they are going to get it in the neck!
This undemocratic Parliamentary system is inherently incapable of acting in the interests of the majority of working people, however they vote. We need to extend democracy and reconstruct the state to take power out of the hands of the corporations and bankers if we are to solve the economic and financial disaster at their expense. There is, therefore, a strong case building for voting for “None of the Above” and creating the momentum for revolutionary solutions to the crisis.