Monday, March 31, 2008

Unions should act on asylum rights

The sinister underside of New Labour’s racist, dehumanising immigration policy came to light at a trade union and community conference over the weekend. It is a Kafkaesque world of state-organised disappearances, unlimited detention, rapid expulsions, exploitation and destitution designed to divide communties and win cheap votes at election time.

Real life experiences related to the conference make a mockery of the claim by New Labour’s Border and Immigration Agency chief Lin Homer last week that: "We operate a firm but humane system, supporting those who are vulnerable with accommodation and assistance.” She was responding to the publication of a year-long investigation by the Independent Asylum Commission , led by an ex-senior judge, John Waite which said that “treatment of some asylum seekers was a shameful blemish on the UK’s international reputation”.

Speakers at Saturday’s conference included a representative from the All African Women’s Group based at Crossroads Women’s Centre, and asylum seekers Robinson Baldeon and Alphonsus Okafor-Mefor. They and others from around the country painted a grim picture which backed up the detailed research published by the Asylum Commission, but also documented how asylum seekers are courageously organising, inside and outside detention centres, to defend their rights.

John McDonnell MP, whose constituency includes the Harmondsworth and Colnbrook detention centres, revealed some of the most grotesque aspects of government policy. He believes that more than 800 people are currently being held at these two locations alone, although no one knows the exact figures. Some migrant workers are being picked up by immigration authorities and police and handcuffed while signing on at Job Centres. Some are even taking suitcases with them when they go to sign on in fear of arrest and deportation.

McDonnell denounced the sinister tactics adopted by the immigration authorities, which meant that those he and other MPs were trying to help often simply disappeared off the radar: “Often the only appeals which the authorities recognise at all are from MPs, but people are being shifted around the country. It is extremely difficult to find where they have been taken and MPs like myself are often told that the asylum seeker is no longer in their constituency, so that they cannot represent them.” There was an entire separate population sleeping rough, some in churches, some on friend’s floors or in the open, and a policy of brutality to young people who can now also be deported before they reach the age of 18, McDonnell said. He called on the trade unions to recruit asylum seekers and mount a national campaign on their behalf.

Alphonsus Okafor-Mefor showed the reality of the statistic that four out of every ten asylum seekers are destitute. Thanks to his own determination and community support, Alphonsus managed to receive “leave to remain”, but he said that the life of an asylum seeker was a “life of despair and hopelessness, with no right to work, medical care, good accommodation or education”. The experience of detention debased humanity, he said. “I am one of thousands who don’t have the chance to speak out.”

Robinson Baldeon, a refugee from Ecuador, said that as an “illegal” worker “it is a crime to go sick”. The 90,000 Ecuadorians who live in the UK are “invisible”, he added. Another speaker said that a woman had been held for four days in a police cell near Victoria station, without legal representation, money, adequate food, or chance to shower before being secretly deported. Under the new “fast-track” system, Britain is reportedly deporting one asylum seeker every eight minutes.

And it is not only the government which is denying basic rights to immigrant workers. Chinese workers in central London, who recently held a demonstration against dawn raids, want to hold a rally in Trafalgar Square. Jabez Lam from Chinese Immigration Concern Committee (CICC) said that Greater London Authority officials had told him that it was only possible to hold a rally in the square if there was a “special reason” and if the organisers took out a public liabilities insurance policy of £80,000.

Corinna Lotz
Secretary, A World to Win

Friday, March 28, 2008

Send for Dr Who!

Regulate! Regulate! Regulate! This is the cry heard with increasing stridency on both sides of the Atlantic as the global financial crisis continues to take its toll on both bankers and ordinary people’s lives. This sounds plausible enough, even mildly anti-capitalist. But in truth, regulation is a non-starter when it comes to dealing with the depth and breadth of the meltdown.

Firstly, a correction. It’s not actually about regulation as such but more about re-regulation. The financial sector was actually heavily regulated and controlled in the period 1945-1980, when the character of the world economy was international rather than globalised in character. There were fixed exchange rates and tight controls on the movement of capital. Credit was difficult to come by and mortgages were relatively rare.

These restrictions had been imposed in a bid to stabilise the world economy at the end of World War II and prevent a return to the slump of the 1930s. But the contradictions inherent within the capitalist system of economy undermined the controls and they collapsed amid rampant inflation, massive unemployment, class warfare and the end of the post-war political consensus.

These are the conditions that gave rise to the transition to the present-day globalised economy, where regulations were abandoned in a process referred to as “liberalisation”. The subsequent growth in production was driven by fewer and fewer corporations operating transnationally, fuelled by an entirely new phenomenon – an electronically-driven, 24-hour, borderless financial system.

So herein lies the first problem for commentators like the Financial Times’ Martin Wolf – who says the period of liberalisation is over - The Guardian’s Larry Elliott, who is a fan of (re)regulation and Professor Peter Dreier, Occidental College, California, who wants tough action against rogue financiers. In essence, they favour a kind of return to a period of capitalism when states and governments exercised greater influence over finance. Leaving aside the abject failure of this approach by governments of the 1960s and 1970s, the question is: can you actually go backwards in history? Is it possible to turn the clock back to a pre-globalisation period? Well, we’d all like to travel back in time. So far, only 'Dr Who' and the stars of the movie 'Back to the Future' have succeeded.

The chorus of calls and plethora of proposals for regulatory reform to stop such things ever happening again cover every aspect of the system, including: accounting standards, rating agencies, the ratio of capital held by banks to the credit they issue, limits on what financial institutions are allowed to do, and not least, bankers’ bonuses. But even these were undermined by simultaneous publication on Wednesday 26 March of the Financial Services Authority report on its supervision of Northern Rock and governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King’s warning that the financial crisis had entered “a new and different phase”.

The FSA’s failure of oversight wasn’t due to a problem with the regulatory regime itself, apparently, but with management failure in applying it. And there’s no way that the FSA can compete for the specialised staff needed to understand the new products the banks and non-banks invent to subvert and evade control. In the case of Bear Stearns, its regulator, the Securities and Exchange Commission, says that the bank was operating according to national and international standards.

The lessons of the growth of hedge funds, off-shore private equity funds and exotic, toxic financial products is that they were designed to bypass whatever system of regulation remained after the progressive dismantling of the post-war system. They are not “excesses” but have been integral to the expansion of globalised capitalism, especially in terms of funding consumption. So the second, underlying problem, is that the crisis in the financial system is inevitably related to and driven by the recession in the productive side of the economy. And no amount of regulatory proposals can fix that.

Gerry Gold & Paul Feldman
Co-authors, A House of Cards – from fantasy finance to global crash

Thursday, March 27, 2008

An Anglo-French nuclear nightmare

The very concept of a “nuclear renaissance” is such an assault on the senses that it seems that only a madman could come up with it. Yet today Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy will agree to build a new generation of Anglo-French nuclear power stations, with the aim of becoming the world’s largest exporters of nuclear technology.

Trade and Energy Minister John Hutton has already offered a terrifying insight into what the two governments have in mind. Speaking to delegates at the Unite union conference, Hutton claimed that Britain can become “the gateway to a new nuclear renaissance across Europe”. The potential scale of the investment is “breathtaking”, he said, and added: "There has never been a greater global demand for finance, equipment and skills to build and operate nuclear power stations. I want Britain to be leading the world in the development and application of this new generation of low carbon power technology."

The UK should not only replace its 23 existing nuclear reactors, but opt for a huge expansion. With “no artificial cap to constrain the potential of new build in the UK” the industry could create thousands of jobs and “the prize could be massive". That weasel phrase “no artificial cap” means the government believes anyone trying to stand in the way is guilty of creating “artificial” blockages to an economic bonanza. So let’s look at some “artificial” blockages.

First of all, in no way is nuclear a “low carbon option”. Construction of a nuclear power station would emit 20 million tonnes of CO2. It would take 100 years to generate sufficient “carbon free” electricity to offset this carbon cost. A 100 megawatt nuclear reactor needs 160 tonnes of uranium each year, processed from 16 million tonnes of rock and releasing 320 tonnes of CO2. Uranium is a non-renewable resource, which is itself already running out.

The drive to mine in new areas is opposed by indigenous communities from Namibia, Australia, Canada and the Black Hills of Dakota. To obtain one tonne of uranium means mining and milling 98,000 tonnes of rock. The refining process leaves 10% of the uranium behind, dumped as radioactive sludge. Wherever it has been mined, it has wrecked the health of people, animals and eco-systems. Here’s another “artificial blockage”. Where is the spent radioactive fuel to be stored? The government’s only plan so far is to offer bribes to some of the poorest communities if they will accept to have storage facilities.

These facts about nuclear energy are summarised in A World to Win’s book Running a Temperature, an action plan for the eco-crisis . It also sets out basic principles for an alternative approach. It proposes a massive investment of public money to insulate people’s homes. The book points out that centralised energy generation wastes power, and proposes instead the formation of local democratically-elected energy groups, which could plan the right combination of energy efficiency measures and local power generation to meet their community’s needs. They would, as far as possible, use renewable resources.

For New Labour, climate change is now simply a business opportunity – their unthinking reflex is always to support the option that suits the global corporations and generates the most profit. The challenge that we face is not just making the transition beyond oil, but the transition beyond the drive for profit, which is threatening our survival. Such a change can only be brought about by a transformation of ownership of the energy companies and the states that promote their interests.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Credit chain breaks at weakest link

Hedge funds are not just investment opportunities open only to wealthy individuals. They also apparently come in the shape of Iceland. Now, pardon the pun, Iceland’s finances are in meltdown and it could be the first country to fall victim of a global credit crunch that shows no signs of abating.

Iceland has been dubbed a “giant hedge fund” because of the way in which the country’s corporate and banking sectors have expanded rapidly on borrowed money to give above average returns. Until the credit crunch, that is. Yesterday, Iceland’s central bank suddenly hiked up interest rates 1.25% to 15% in a bid to restore confidence in its currency and ward off full-scale economic crisis. It may be too late for the country of 300,000 people.

Its central bank blamed “deteriorating financial conditions in global markets” for the rate rise, which smacks more of panic than anything else. Confidence in the Icelandic krona has plummeted this year, falling 22% against the euro, driving up inflation to around 7%. Meanwhile, traders in so-called credit default swaps have pushed the cost of protecting the country’s three main banks’ debt against default sky high.

Iceland’s plight is a sure sign that the global financial chain is breaking apart, with the weakest and smallest going to the wall first. The intervention of the world’s central banks last week, when countless billions of dollars were thrown at the crisis and US bank Bear Stearns was forcibly taken over, is now being seen as the last despairing throw of the financial dice. And it has made no real difference. The cost of inter-bank borrowing has actually risen since that intervention. Banks are still reluctant to engage in inter-bank loans because they are uncertain whether they will ever get their money back.

While the stock markets are behaving as if nothing is amiss, with shares soaring in London, the latest data from the US economy confirms that things are badly awry. US consumers are at their most pessimistic for 35 years and house prices are falling at the fastest rate on record. Prices in 20 large cities fell by 10.7% in January compared with the same period last year.

What these cold statistics manifest is the economic recession that is now gripping America, which has only been staved off in the past by borrowing on a larger and larger scale, both by corporations, individuals and the federal government. When the financial musical chairs stopped last summer, many institutions were left with what used to be “non-performing loans”. This term was used to describe the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s, where countries like Mexico were unable to repay the interest, let alone the capital, on their mammoth foreign loans.

Today’s financial crisis is a global phenomenon, afflicting every country, large or small. Iceland is the first sovereign state to face meltdown but it won’t be the last. Creating a new, stable monetary and financial system out of this chaos is clearly beyond the capacity of governments and central banks. For real solutions to this crisis, you should read A House of Cards, which we published recently, and then decide to do something about it.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The hidden unholy alliance

The backlash from senior religious figures against the human fertilisation and embryology Bill before parliament should not be allowed to obscure their medieval, anti-science viewpoint on the one hand and the government’s close connection with biotech corporations on the other.

Cardinals and bishops throughout the land used Easter to launch ferocious attacks on the government for refusing – so far - to allow a “free vote” in the Commons. Cardinal O'Brien, Scotland's most senior Catholic cleric denounced what he called "Frankenstein" experiments and called the Bill’s proposals a "monstrous attack on human rights, human dignity and human life". The Church of England joined the fray in the form of Tom Wright, the Bishop of Durham. He saw fit to denounce the government for “pushing through, hard and fast, legislation that comes from a militantly atheist and secularist lobby”.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster, has called for Labour MPs to be granted a free vote, saying: "I think Catholics in politics have got to act according to their Catholic convictions, so have other Christians, so have other politicians.” Three Catholic cabinet ministers are taking their cue from the Pope’s man in Britain - Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy, Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly (a member of the highly secret, far-right Opus Dei sect) and Defence Secretary Des Brown – and are threatening to leave the government.

They oppose the Bill because it allows the use of cloned embryos in the very early moments after fertilisation, which they claim is a form of murder. The Catholic Church’s opposes abortion on similar grounds. In fact, the use of stem-cell therapies, which is what the tiny balls of cells (which in no-way can be called human beings) are used for, has already been proved beneficial in treating Parkinson’s disease. The Catholic Church and other opponents of scientific knowledge want to cash in, as always, on people’s fears and ignorance of the hidden processes by which a human being arises from just those clumps of cells.

There is an entirely justified fear and distrust of another unholy and hidden alliance – that between politicians of all parties and the global corporations whose interests dominate scientific and medical research of all kinds. Brown’s main concern is that biotech corporations will be left behind by their competitors if the Bill doesn’t go through. How they steal an advantage is another thing. Only recently GlaxoSmithKline was forced to admit that it had covered up the fatal effects of Prozac on young people by refusing to place internal research in the public domain.

The secrecy surrounding patents of new medicines, the use of wide swathes of the population as guinea pigs for new drugs, the premature prescribing of new products due to pressures from corporations on the medical profession – in short, the wholesale entry of market forces into the National Health Service have all contributed to fears of unchecked experimentation.

In our book, A World to Win, we document the way in which the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is dominated by commercial interests, in particular companies like GlaxoSmithKline, Astra-Zenica, Unilever and United Biscuits.

At present, the choice is between leaving the questions of scientific research to a toothless parliament in hock to corporate interests, who will secretly experiment on people, or endure new forms of moral intolerance and anti-science, parading under the banner of “freedom of conscience”. There has to be another way. The row over this Bill shows the urgent need for a science that is financed and controlled with the interests of society as a whole at the centre of research rather than the balance sheets of Big Pharma.

Corinna Lotz
AWTW secretary

Thursday, March 20, 2008

No security against climate change

New Labour’s characterisation of climate change as a “security threat”, second only to terrorism in the pecking order, indicates how the state intends to respond to the results of global warming. And we’re not talking drastic cuts in carbon emissions here but a huge increase in the powers of the state over ordinary people.

The so-called National Security Strategy published yesterday says that Britain faces the risk of severe floods and that flood defences will not prevent serious damage to homes and communities. Extreme weather events “will become more frequent and more severe”. Climate change “is potentially the greatest challenge to global stability and security and therefore to national security”, says the document.

“Rising sea levels and disappearing ice will alter borders and open up new sea lanes, increasing the risk of territorial disputes. An increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events - floods, droughts and storms - will generate more intense humanitarian crises, adding further stresses on local, national and international structures.”

This is the most dramatic and pessimistic statement on climate change the government has ever made. What is significant is that it was made in an assessment of “national security” risks rather than, let’s say, a statement turning down planning permission for a new runway or a coal-fired power station.

And if climate change is to be characterised as a security risk, then what is required is a security response. The main actions arising from this report are the expansion of the spy agency MI5 to 4,000 spooks – double the number in 2001. Funding for the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, which is run by MI5, will increase by 10%. And there will be four new regional counter-terrorist units in addition to those already operating.

A standby force of civilian experts, consisting of former judges and ex-police and army officers, already exists, and will be 1,000-strong by June. Readers of this blog will remember that when the floods took place in Gloucester last year, it was the chief constable who took charge not the local council. This deadly combination of increased state surveillance and control, plus a total failure to implement any reductions in carbon emissions or universal energy conservation measures, is the only response that New Labour’s market state can make to the challenge of climate change.

The government’s report acknowledges that many of the results of global warming are “likely to fall most heavily on those countries least able to deal with them, and therefore most likely to suffer humanitarian disaster, but also to tip into instability, state failure or conflict”. Two recent reports underline this reality.

Minority Rights Group International has tracked the impact of climate change on minority communities - from Roma in Hungary, Dalits in India and African-Americans in New Orleans and found they already suffer most from extreme climate events. And the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s report has mapped out the areas of the world which will be most vulnerable to climate change in the future and found that the worst impact will be on indigenous peoples many of whom are already living on the edge of survival.

But opportunities to profit from climate change forge ahead. In New York on Monday, “The Green Exchange” was launched, to trade in carbon “futures” with four new products based on European and US emissions trading schemes. It will compete with the largest existing carbon trading exchange - the European Climate Exchange and the Chicago Climate Exchange, both owned by London-based Climate Exchange plc. which posted a profit this year for the first time, with revenues up 249%. As the capitalists of northern England said during their 19th century hey-day, “where there’s muck, there’s brass”.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Our next blog will be published on Tuesday, March 25

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Iraq: America's nightmare

Exactly five years ago, US and British forces embarked on an illegal pre-emptive war on Iraq with the stated aim of bringing “freedom and democracy” to the country. Instead, they have destroyed Iraq, turning it into a country of mutually hostile ghettoes, presiding over the deaths of over one million Iraqis, driving more than two million into exile, with another 1.9 million internally displaced.

This constitutes a ghastly mass social experiment using live and unwilling subjects. By any count, the governments in Washington and London, to put it bluntly, stand guilty of massive war crimes against humanity. If we actually lived in a democracy, then Bush, Cheney, Brown and Blair and everyone in their regimes who endorsed the invasion and occupation, would be behind bars. The fact that they are still at large speaks volumes for the real nature of present-day politics.

The charge sheet is endless. Driven by corporate greed to turn Iraq from a state-run to a market economy, the occupying powers have dismembered and sold off industries and withdrawn government subsidies for food and power. This “shock therapy”, which was the real objective of the invasion, has added to the untold misery of the Iraqi people. The oil industry, however, was left in state hands so that its resources could be divided up between the oil corporations through contracts so generous that no other country in the world would have agreed to their conditions.

As anyone who cared to investigate at the time knew, the invasion was prepared and launched on a pretext. It followed a softening-up process in relation to international law, when pre-emptive military action was taken against former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan to effect regime change. The United Nations was reduced to a pathetic onlooker as Washington and London prepared the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It took former general secretary Kofi Anan until September 2004 to say that the war was contrary to international law, when a word or two at the time might have made a difference.

As to the fabled “Weapons of Mass Destruction” – they were, of course, essentially weapons of mass disinformation. Former UN weapons inspector Scott Ritter said in an interview: “All this talk about Iraq having chemical weapons is no longer valid. Most of it is based on speculation that Iraq could have hidden some of these weapons from UN inspectors. I believe we did a good job of inspecting Iraq.” The UN blew up the main manufacturing plant and Ritter says that anything hidden would by now be “useless sludge”. He adds: “If Iraq was producing weapons today, we’d have definitive proof, plain and simple.”

The lies about WMD were known in London, where dodgy dossiers cobbled together from the Internet and reworked by press officers tried to build the case for war. On May 1, 2005 the "Downing Street memo" was leaked. It contained an overview of a secret July 23, 2002 meeting between New Labour ministers, defence and intelligence figures who discussed the build-up to the Iraq war. The memo stated: "Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy." According to the Center for Public Integrity, Bush's administration made a total of 935 false statements between 2001 and 2003 about Iraq's alleged threat to the United States.

History will come to see the invasion as a desperate act by desperate politicians on behalf of a greedy corporate elite. Far from demonstrating the all-powerful nature of the US, the war has exposed its Achilles heel – the massive indebtedness of the country, which is bringing down its banking system and depriving millions of people of their homes. The true cost of the invasion and occupation of Iraq is put at a staggering $3 trillion – or $3,000,000,000,000. That has helped bankrupt the US Treasury, weaken the dollar and deprive America itself of much-needed public investment. In this way, the cost of the war has contributed to the recession now hitting the US economy. The war, paradoxically, has weakened the US where it hurts most. No wonder that most Americans are now opposed to the continued occupation of Iraq.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Policies for a crisis without precedent

The global financial crisis, which this weekend claimed the giant investment bank Bear Stearns and led to a hysterical response on world stock markets, has no precedent. Comparisons with the Wall Street crash of 1929 or even the “bankers’ panic” of 1907 don’t even begin to get near the essence of the crisis.

Bear Stearns, the fifth largest investment bank in the US, was sold for just $230m. This was a tiny fraction of its value a year ago – before it became one of the early victims of the end of the 60-year credit-led boom (see our blog Financial 'Katrina' begins to blow , June 2007). The bank is the latest in what is becoming a torrent of failures. Global investment giant Lehman Brothers looks very shaky. In the UK, big names like Barclays, HBOS – owners of the Halifax - Alliance and Leicester are in the frame.

But however far back you look on any scale, previous events are dwarfed by the yawning gulf that had grown between the billowing clouds of credit blowing around the world - Marx appropriately called it “fictitious value” - and the real value in the global economy produced by human labour.

Attempts to pour more money in to stem the panic have the same effect as assurances from Brown and Bush. More panic. Stock market meltdown. Soaring prices for oil, gold and food. Mortgages becoming scarce, expensive, or just simply unobtainable. The Bank of England tossed another paltry £5bn into the collection plate yesterday, but it got sucked into the vortex of the tornado and scattered into the air, like so much confetti.

The Financial Times, the voice of global capitalism, has given up on government action, preferring divine intervention. After Martin Wolf’s call to prayer last week, assistant editor Gillian Tett has this to say : “For as anyone with a classical education knows, credit takes its root from the Latin word credere (‘to trust’). And as the current credit turmoil now mutates into ever-more virulent forms, it is faith – or, rather, the lack of it – that has turned a subprime squall into a what is arguably the worst financial crisis in seven decades.”

If they’d all taken the trouble to read the review copies of A House of Cards, from fantasy finance to global crash we sent them four months ago, they wouldn’t have been so surprised by events. Our book tells the story of the credit-led growth of global corporations and the dismantling of regulation. It explains the objective necessity – for the capitalist economy - of this process of expansion at all costs, and how consumers had to be fitted up with debt and seduced with three-for-the price of two offers, buy now - pay later, go large.

A House of Cards doesn’t take up much space asking how bad the crisis can get. We’re more concerned to move forward through proposals aimed at composting capitalism.

We put forward the following principles as a way to act globally by starting locally:
• ownership of production facilities of the major corporations and of land and water through a variety of forms of co-ownership
• democratic control and self-management of economic and financial resources, including public services
• productive capacity shifted towards satisfying need rather than generating profit
• ecologically sustainable production and distribution
• encouraging and supporting small-scale enterprises, creative workers and farmers to work sustainably
• favouring local production for local needs
• facilitating the development of the “thinking market”.

Humanity has arrived at an historical crossroads where we face key decisions. Capitalism has its own “solutions” to the crisis: financial and economic disorder, war and dictatorship. The development of a global society based on co-operation, co-ownership and sustainability offers another way forward. This is nothing less than a challenge for power over capitalism and its political system. Get a copy of A House of Cards. Read it. Help us to build A World to Win as a movement that can inspire people to take the path of revolutionary change.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Monday, March 17, 2008

Tibet: Brown puts trade before human rights

While China is desperate to present a benign image to the world in anticipation of the summer Olympics, the brutal crackdown on Tibetans determined to defend their language, religion and culture, betrays the real nature of the authoritarian regime in Beijing.

While a wave of demonstrations and oppression rages inside and outside Tibet, the response in Western capitals is muted to say the least. Concerned more about maintaining trade with China – whose reserves literally prop up the ailing dollar – Bush and Brown do no more than express “concern” while the bloodshed continues.

The Chinese authorities’ attempts to blame Tibetan “attacks” on Han Chinese for the crackdown is disgusting. Chinese troops were sent in last week when a march by 300 monks from the Drepung Monastery outside Lhasa grew rapidly into probably the biggest protest since early 1989. Then, under China’s present president, Hu Jintao, 200 demonstrators were killed. This time, a hail of police fire killed around 100 Tibetans, amongst them boys and girls, according to eyewitnesses. All the reports show that the Tibetan capital, Lhasa has been transformed into a war zone. There are troops on the streets with armoured vehicles warning people to stay off the streets or face lethal force.

By shutting down access to Tibet-related internet sites anywhere in China and curbing mobile coverage, the authorities seek to hide the extent of the killings. But despite the ferocity of the crackdown, Tibetans feel this could be a chance for their cause to resonate around the world. "Total desperation has arrived," said Lhadon Tethong of Students for a Free Tibet. "The people of Tibet are fighting for their religious and cultural survival. With the Beijing Olympics only five months away, many see it as now or never."

The stakes in this confrontation are extremely high on all sides. Chinese rule is reliant on political control by the Communist Party – a Stalinist, bureaucratic organisation which is desperate to cling to power. Party bureaucrats have become monstrously rich by making deals with the global corporations. They are terrified of losing sovereignty in Tibet, because it could signal the unravelling of Chinese control in Taiwan as well as in Xingang in the north. Meanwhile the rest of the capitalist world, particularly the global banking system, is deeply in hock to the Chinese government.

For Tibetans, the struggle goes back to 1950, when Chinese forces invaded Tibet. They have been denied the right to their culture, language and religion for decades. By flooding the area with Han Chinese immigrants, Beijing has hoped to smother Tibet’s own traditions. But in fact, it was Britain’s invasion into Lhasa in 1903-4, which turned the hitherto inaccessible mountain area into a pawn in the struggle for domination between the Russian and British empires. A hundred years later, economic interests are still to the fore, particularly as the international banking system staggers from one crisis to the next.

Campaigners for human rights in Tibet are calling on Brown and foreign secretary Miliband to condemn the Chinese government’s brutal attack on the basic rights of Tibetans. Matt Whitticase of the Free Tibet Campaign denounced Brown’s silence on human rights during his recent trip to China as “shameful”. In the end, however, New Labour puts trade and corporate interests above human rights – both in Tibet and Britain.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win Secretary

Friday, March 14, 2008

Prayers as 'the great unwinding' claims another casualty

Guests on last night’s Newsnight (BBC2) talked about a ‘crumbling house of cards built by the capitalist financial system’. They weren’t talking about our book A House of Cards, from fantasy finance to global crash but they might as well have been. Instead, they were discussing the latest bankruptcy of a major financial group.

This time it is Carlyle Capital Corporation (CCC), a $22bn mortgage-backed securities fund. As the Financial Times put it, “CCC represents one of the most dramatic casualties of the great unwinding that is occurring in the financial markets as lenders pull back from risk. The fund, which had $31 of debt for every $1 of its own, had hoped to use its massive borrowings to generate higher returns from investments in highly rated mortgage securities.”

This latest collapse panicked the stock market, led to further falls in the dollar, drove commodities to new records and delivered a sharp blow to chancellor Alistair Darling’s belief that slowing growth and increasing inflation are only temporary – the naïve reassurance at the heart of his first budget. If anything was clear from Wednesday’s speech, it was a tacit admission that there aren’t any measures New Labour can propose to match up to the severity of the escalating global financial and economic crisis.

Its scale and spread renders any national government incapable of defending its economy against global storms. The world’s central banks have thrown at least $100bn at the markets this week – all to no avail.

Darling’s speech was peppered with phrases which passed the buck – there’s a “slowdown in the global economy”, “turbulence in global financial markets”, “significant disruption across many credit markets: with a number of them barely functioning at all”, and falling global stock markets pose “a major risk to the world economy”. Despite this, he remains confident about the relative strength of a British economy which is utterly dependent on the fate of the global financial system.

Later that day, the International Monetary Fund’s first deputy managing director, John Lipsky told it how it really was. Things are bad, and are going to get worse. “Policy actions worldwide, so far, "may not prove to be adequate" to deal with the "low probability but high impact events" that may materialise and undermine global financial stability. Policymakers as a matter of course need to `think the unthinkable,” and to consider how they would plan to react if contingencies arise. The need to prepare systematically for potential risks has been demonstrated amply during the past few months." This was hours before CCC hit the headlines. He must have known.

In a stark admission of the failure of the IMF’s policy of unregulated, free markets Lipsky said: “I fully recognise an appropriate role for public sector intervention after market solutions have been exhausted.” Some support there, then for Darling’s Northern Rock rescue, and a strong indication that further vast sums of public sector money will have to be diverted into more ill-fated attempts to shore up the global capitalist economy.

Perhaps most worrying is the way Darling proposes to deal with the threat of climate change. “There will be catastrophic economic and social consequences if we fail to act,” he says. But, in a move hardly noticed by green critics, and certain to negate the other wholly inadequate measures he announced, Darling is going to offset the arrival of Peak Oil by reforming “the North Sea fiscal regime to help incentivise investment and support production”. This will maximise the “economic recovery of the UK’s oil and gas reserves”, he says.

More profits from more fossil fuel? Maybe the FT’s Martin Wolf was right in his conclusion to Tuesday’s column about the financial crisis: “We must pray.”

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Thursday, March 13, 2008

E.ON calls the tune

Alistair Darling’s failure to keep his pledge to put “sustainability at the heart of his budget” may have disappointed campaign groups like Friends of the Earth, but they shouldn’t really be surprised. Earlier this week, the government’s new Committee on Climate Change met for the first time – and got an object lesson in just how effective they are likely to be.

Trade and energy Minister John Hutton chose that very day to make it clear that the government will approve a coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth in Kent without specifying “carbon capture” technology as a condition. The extent to which the government’s whole agenda on climate change is dictated solely by business interests, was highlighted when the trade and energy department caved in to pressure from the global energy giant E.ON over the new power station on the Medway Estuary.

In an exchange of emails (obtained by Greenpeace under Freedom of Information), an official in Hutton’s department suggested that permission might be dependent on a commitment to retro-fit carbon capture technology. E.ON’s Martin Land replied: “E.ON is reluctant to specifically reference carbon capture and storage as a consideration without legislation. The Secretary of State has no right to withhold approval for a conventional plant." Just six minutes later, the official emailed back, saying: “I won’t include it.”

So the energy corporation denied the government even the slightest fig leaf to hide their shame. The reality is that carbon capture is currently a pipedream, but the government hoped that writing it in would make the Kingsnorth decision seem less odious. The plant will be one of the country’s largest emitters of greenhouse gas – around 8m tonnes a year. Seven other similar sized or bigger coal-powered stations are planned, driving the UK target of cutting emissions by 60% by 2050 further and further away.

Which brings us back to Lord Adair Turner (former McKinsey consultant and Director General of the CBI, the employers’ organisation) and the Climate Change committee that he chairs. Their role is to monitor how effective the government is in progressing towards the targets in the Climate Change Bill. Interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, he refused to comment on Hutton’s announcement. “I’m not going to get into giving week-by-week comment on specific decisions. We are there to map the path from 2012 to 2050.”

But that path is pretty clear already, if every single “specific decision” is made on the basis that what’s good for business is the only criteria that counts. Turner can learn more about the likely future influence of his committee from Jonathon Porritt, chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission, another body advising the government. He told the Today programme: “The government takes our advice seriously on issues where it is convenient for them to do so. On energy efficiency they say it can’t be made to work because our economy cannot tolerate it.”

John Hutton is the minister who this week told the TUC and Labour Party to stop attacking fat cat City bonuses and millionaire salaries. We need more millionaires, he explained, and Labour must "renew our commitment to wealth creation and enterprise in Britain…." So that would be starting with E.ON then?

Penny Cole

Environment editor

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Goldsmith's allegiance to the state

As we approach the fifth anniversary of the occupation of Iraq, it is indeed ironic that the man who now tells us that an oath of allegiance to the state by young people would enhance respect for authority and engender a stronger sense of citizenship, is the same person who in 2003 helped facilitate the illegal invasion.

Lord Goldsmith’s own respect for authority – in this case the established principles of international law – was found wanting when the Blair government asked for – demanded, to be more accurate - an opinion that an attack on Iraq was lawful. Step forward the then Attorney-General, the very same Lord Goldsmith. The accepted legal position was that an attack on another sovereign state was only justified under specific conditions, including the threat of an attack by that country or where force had been authorised by the United Nations. Neither applied in the case of Iraq.

Goldsmith’s creative mind was exercised by this dilemma. His original memo written on 7 March 2003 was equivocal. He said existing breach of Security Council resolution 1441 could provide a “reasonable case” for the use of force without a further resolution, but conceded that a court might well conclude that another UN resolution was needed. The armed forces were not satisfied with this position. So ten days later, on the eve of the invasion – with no prospect of getting a further UN resolution - Goldsmith bluntly stated that the use of force in Iraq was lawful, dropping all his earlier caveats.

In handing Blair a legal fig leaf, Goldsmith had given the green light to the blatant objective of regime change, the installing of a government more to the liking of Washington and London which would open up Iraq to foreign investment and guarantee oil supplies. When the invasion began on 20 March, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, deputy legal adviser at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, promptly resigned in protest. She also accused Goldsmith of changing his view on the matter.

Respect for “authority” has continued to plummet following the invasion. In the case of Iraq, the authorities patently fabricated evidence and dossiers about so-called weapons of mass destruction. No wonder fewer and few people believe what the government says on any issue. The authorities are viewed as duplicitous at best, ignoring people’s wishes on a variety of questions ranging from nuclear power to expanded airports.

Goldsmith’s proposals on an oath of loyalty in schools have about as much merit as his discredited opinion on Iraq. The idea of swearing allegiance to the monarchy, Britain’s least democratic institution, is, in any case, absurd and laughable. Goldsmith’s nonsense is yet another sign of New Labour in disarray. Having lost the respect of millions of voters, creating a society more unequal than ever before, Brown’s government is wrapping itself in the Union Jack and banging on about imagined “shared values” in a desperate bid to rally support. Add this to the surveillance, database-driven state that is far advanced in Britain, and you get an idea of the direction New Labour is heading in. It’s not a pleasant prospect.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The surveillance Olympics

If gold medals were awarded for surveillance, then Britain will win a hatful at the 2012 Games. The Metropolitan Police hopes to use no fewer than 500,000 CCTV cameras to police the 2012 Olympics Games in London. All of its own cameras, numbering a mere 10,000, will be pooled with traffic, congestion and other cameras across the city to create a network, the BBC reports. This network “would be operated from a command centre, in London, by military, police and intelligence services … It is understood the command centre would remain in place after the Olympics”. Just like that!

And the plan does not stop with the cameras. The Met’s head of special operations Tarique Ghaffur, has outlined a number of other measures: the division of London into three security zones to make the arrangements more effective; the use of three helicopters for close surveillance during the games; an automatic number plate recognition system; and the issuing of tickets that are linked to the identity of buyers, whereby a spectator “will be tracked from the venue to his or her home with these tickets”. Ghaffur also promised a conference in Abu Dhabi that there would be stringent checks, including biometric fingerprinting for the 40,000 workers building the venues.

All this represents another big lurch towards the police state that even some respectable commentators are warning about in the capitalist press. The London Olympics, for the police, the military and the spooks is an irresistible opportunity to test out new ways of monitoring and controlling a population. The state, in a period of crisis and uncertainty, like that of today, constantly seeks to re-arm and strengthen itself. Led by New Labour, the forces of the state try to turn every event or feared event into an excuse for taking away the freedoms of people and raising their own powers. The so-called,“terrorist threat” becomes the pretext for new restrictive laws and mass surveillance that actually leaves aside the real causes and issues around terrorism.

All these measures are preparation for something other than terrorism, however. The ruling and political classes understand very well that as mortgages, fuel bills and food prices rise and as the financial crisis intensifies and workers lose their jobs, there will be upheavals. The history of this country shows time and again that the masses will defend their rights and their liberties and that is why the state is tooling up with cameras on every corner and database-driven ID cards.

The Games themselves over the last 30 years or so have become more and more an arena for the big corporations to advertise themselves and to market their products and less and less of a genuine sporting spectacle. The media companies, who broadcast to 3.9 billion people at the last games in Athens, also make a killing.

Athletics, the main sport at the Olympics, is hopelessly compromised by drug-taking, leading to scandals, lawsuits and phoney results. The 2012 games will cost at least £10bn (rising all the time), apart from the security bill. Many people and small businesses in East London have been forced out of the area, and arts and community projects have been starved of funds, as lottery money is channelled to the Olympics.

And yet a different scenario, a not-for profit Olympic Games without corporate sponsorship, is not hard to imagine. Sport, released from the orbit of the profit-hungry mammoths, would re-discover some of its old values and sportspeople, free from the pressures of winning at all costs, and in a different cultural environment, would soon learn to eschew drugs.

The games would ultimately be owned, controlled and organised by the athletes, the fans and the local community. Their organising committee could of course call on the same experts, planners, designers, architects and others who are doing the work now, but, freed from the agenda of the globalised sports industry and governments that support big business, the games would soon become a different - and uplifting – event, without the sinister and pervasive security that is going to be a feature of the London games.

Peter Arkell

Monday, March 10, 2008

Clegg sounds the alarm bells

Media pundits made fun of the Liberal Democrats’ new leader, Nick Clegg, when he split his party over the European Union treaty referendum vote. But over the weekend, he defied predictions of disaster by winning over spring conference delegates with a sweeping condemnation of “establishment politics” in a bid to position himself for the outcome of the next general election.

Clegg attacked class divisions in Britain, where “some people are still more free than others” saying that Labour had “sold its soul and became the second Conservative party”. He pointed out that children born into poor neighbourhoods might have a life expectancy far shorter than the rich. Clegg tapped into the growing disaffection with existing political structures, especially the two-party system that has dominated British politics for so long.

Casting himself and his party as rebels against the political establishment, he said, “a new type of government” was needed - “a new system, that empowers people not parties”. He called for a 100-strong citizens’ jury to join forces with parties, churches and other groups in a Constitutional Convention to “redesign the way Britain is governed”. He noted how there is a “vast and growing army of people who want something different than the main political parties” who rejected the two main parties. Clegg also called for a mass movement of millions of people to take action to protect the planet and tackle climate change.

The Lib Dem leader spoke of liberty taken and abused by government officials and “a faceless state”. He referred to Brown’s “obsession” with building bigger and bigger database systems. He denounced New Labour’s pride “that Britain is leading the world in fingerprinting children at school” and “that the identity card database will be the biggest and most complex that the world has ever seen”. He warned of the impact of a US recession on Britain, saying: “We’ve been building castles in the sand. And the tide is coming in.”

All of these things are undoubtedly true. But behind Clegg's bold words and “high-risk strategy”, he is in fact positioning his party for a possible coalition in the event of a hung parliament. When he refers to “the rotten old system”, he actually means the two-party system, NOT the profit-driven, debt-based system of production, which is now spiralling out of control. He is aware that increasing numbers of people know and feel the existing political structures are neither democratic nor representative. But the bottom line is that Clegg is seeking a way of shoring up faith in the present political system, by offering the pipe dream of capitalism with a democratic face. He is sounding alarm bells about the political system with an eye to backing a Tory or Labour minority administration in the event of a hung parliament.

Many observers, especially those far to the right of Clegg, have noted the sea change in Britain over the last few decades, particularly since New Labour came to power. There is a vast alienation from what is seen as “politics” – in other words the existing undemocratic and somewhat corrupt parliamentary system of rule. The Liberal Democrats’ re-positioning is not just speechifying but a desperate attempt to balance an extra-parliamentary movement with one still chained to the old system. It should be seen as a clarion call to develop a truly alternative economic and political vision to bourgeois democracy and corporate power. A World to Win’s next discussion on April 3 will be another step in this direction.

Corinna Lotz
AWTW secretary

Friday, March 07, 2008

American dream in tatters

The first fall in US household wealth in five years reveals the growing impact of a financial and economic crisis that will be felt by every person on the planet. World prices for oil – now over $100 dollars for a barrel of crude, gold nearing $1000 an ounce, food driven skywards by demand for biofuel, and many other basic commodities are spiralling, whilst the warning signs of recession, including declining retail sales are appearing everywhere.

Many US consumers, already burdened with debt, are being ruined. High-powered salespeople first seduced them with low rates of interest - soon to be replaced by punitive, impossibly high mortgage repayments – thus pushing many over the edge. The US Mortgage Bankers Association said yesterday that the "mortgage delinquency rate hit its highest since 1985 in the final three months of 2007. While the rate of failing loans swelled across most mortgages, it was led by a growing wave of sub prime borrowers unable to make payments". In addition, the number of workers claiming unemployment benefit has remained at its highest in nearly two and a half years.

The property sponge is now being squeezed out, and the world’s financial, stock and commodity markets are in turmoil. New outlets must be found to house the inflationary growth of credit fed by the central banks’ desperate attempts to reduce the impact of recession by injections of liquidity and reducing base interest rates. Despite the actions of impotent governments the cost of credit is increasing. The managers of accumulated oceans of currency in sovereign wealth funds are scouring the planet for profitable enterprises into which they can sink some loot.

As repossessions mount, and demand for housing and all associated goods and services are falling, house prices are tumbling. In America, just as in the UK and in many other countries, private property – both housing and commercial, absorbed the inflationary expansion of credit and debt that made globalisation possible. This fantasy finance – Marx called it fictitious capital – paid for the American dream. It kick-started the growth of transnational corporations that subcontracted unsustainable production to Latin America, China and India to provide cheap commodities, corporate profits and the legacy – climate change. The worst of all possible future consequences are laid bare in The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s dystopian nightmare of the few remaining inhabitants of a dying planet.

It doesn’t have to be like this. Another world is possible.

At the top, refugees from the nightmarish world of fantasy finance have been pitching up as advisers to New Labour. Gordon Brown’s office has welcomed flawed expats from Goldman Sachs, one of the world’s biggest investment houses. Now their advice and the scandals they bring with them are weakening the government’s grip. Good news.

From the bottom, and across the world, broadening social movements like the Transition Town initiative are exploring different ways of living, ways which are not dependent on fossil fuels. For such experiments to become truly effective however, it will be necessary to remove the profit incentive that motivates the extraction of oil, gas and coal. And that means bringing the corporations into social ownership.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Shelter strike for the homeless

The charity Shelter was founded 1966 in response to the television play ‘Cathy Come Home’. The powerful drama brought to a head widespread anger about Britain’s housing crisis. Now the play’s director, Ken Loach, is backing a series of strikes by Shelter workers – the first took place yesterday - over plans to make them work longer hours for the same pay.

Shelter, like many voluntary sector charities, is increasingly dependent on contracts from the state to sustain its finances. With the government demanding more for less, Shelter tore up existing staff contracts and provoked an unprecedented strike in the process.

Shelter’s chief executive Adam Sampson responded to Loach’s call for people to stop donating to the charity by saying it was there to serve homeless people, not its staff. Using corporate-style, cost-driven arguments, Sampson says it is the customer that counts. However, Sampson fails to explain how it can deliver the same, or even a better, service with fewer staff working for longer hours. Perhaps charities with advice lines like Shelter’s could consider outsourcing to Mumbai?

One in seven children in Britain are growing up in bad housing, and thousands of homeless households are stuck in temporary accommodation. Last month, the Council of Mortgage Lenders (CML) said repossessions rose by 21% in 2007 to 27,100 homes, the highest figure since 1999. That figure is going to rise dramatically in 2008, as people find it impossible to pay their mortgages. Meanwhile, the number of new housing associations homes being built plummeted by 43% in London last year. Shelter’s services have never been needed more. It isn’t Sampson who is going to be on the other end of a phone helping people find ways to rehouse their families.

As charities have been drawn into signing contracts with the state – either central or local government – they have become increasingly subject to the harsh rules of the market. Those who commission contracts are out to get services as cheaply as they can, with quality certainly not the main consideration.

Perversely, the more that charities are co-opted into the delivery of services at the lowest cost, the quicker their ability to support the neediest people is diminished. Being tied into these contracts also makes it virtually impossible for charities to criticise and campaign vigorously against the government and local authorities. In the end, the sector is voluntarily super-exploiting its own workers and effectively subsidising the state, losing any semblance of independence in the process.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ annual Almanac found that there are 2.6 charities per thousand of the population in prospering suburbs, compared to 1.6 charities per thousand in suburbs that are “constrained by circumstances”. It also shows that there are 2.2 charities per thousand in multicultural communities, compared to 1 charity per thousand in blue collar communities. Working with people who really need support is too tough, too expensive. In New Labour’s market state the veneer of concern for deprived communities hides an abandonment of whole areas of the country.

As Britain plunges into recession, with fuel and food price inflation already pushing families to the brink, there is an urgent need for not-for-profit organisations who will break free of the state. Once independent of the status quo, they could work alongside communities to challenge the economic structures responsible for homelessness, poverty and neglect. Shelter's strikers could help kick-start just such a campaign.

Kate McCabe

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

A profit-and-loss government

You can’t argue that this government hasn’t got its priorities clear. New Labour commits up to £100 billion to propping up the failed Northern Rock bank in a desperate bid to keep the financial system intact but won’t spend relatively smaller sums to maintain disabled workers’ jobs or keep post offices open. In these cases, “commercial considerations” come first, second and last above those of the community at large.

So when union officials met Gordon Brown last weekend in a last-ditch effort to save jobs at Remploy, which is government subsidised, they got nowhere. Disabled workers at factories around the country will see their plants close down for good this week as a result. Factories in York, Hartlepool and Brixton were put up for sale last week while workers were still inside them. In all, 28 plants employing more than 1,600 workers are set to close because the government says they “do not give value for money”. Some furniture production is heading from Sheffield to Bulgaria, where wages are lower.

Meanwhile, the closure of 2,500 post offices is going ahead at speed, ignoring protests throughout the country and a petition organised by the National Association of Sub Postmasters, which drew more than two million signatures. The government says they are making “unsustainable" losses of £200m a year, a drop in the ocean compared to the financial support given to Northern Rock.

The charity Help the Aged has launched an attack on the government's "decimation" of the network, warning today that many more branches may end up being closed. The Post Office could lose the right to hand out pensions and other benefits. This would cut down the numbers of customers and make thousands of remaining branches unprofitable. The Post Office has already lost the right to supply key services, including passports and television licences. At present, 4.2 million people, including 1.7 million pensioners, receive their benefits via the Post Office Card Account, which is going out to tender. David Sinclair, Help the Aged's policy director, said: "If the Post Office loses this contract the network will lose significant footfall. It would be devastating to the Post Office network and we would undoubtedly see more closures than the current batch."

The anger among Remploy workers has shaken and somewhat shamed the unions involved, who had pinned all their hopes on a government U-turn. Sharon Mackillop, who was on a demonstration outside York Minster, had worked in the city’s Remploy plant for 11 years. She said: "I feel let down - the government is treating us like dirt. We're like part of a family and we want to stay together. Instead, we have been betrayed."

This week five senior GMB union officials resigned from Labour over the “despicable betrayal” of disabled workers at Remploy factories. GMB national secretary Phil Davies, a member for 30 years, said the party’s treatment of Remploy workers was so unjust that he had no option but to resign. Their letter says: “We have been misled by the secretary of state, who made assurances at the 2007 Labour Party conference which he did not keep. I have been a national trade union officer for 20 years and have never seen workers treated in such a despicable way. Our members are being ignored and bullied into submission.”

It’s great that the five have resigned and it’s another sign that New Labour is beginning to fall apart. But what took them so long? Why did they perpetuate the illusion that Brown was for turning and lead their members up the garden path? New Labour has not “betrayed” anyone. Brown, like Blair before him, leads a party and a government that is committed to the profit-and-loss account approach to public services. This has driven their policies in the NHS and in government-controlled operations like the Post Office and Remploy. Union leaders seem to be the only people in Britain not to be aware of this.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications officer

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The railroading begins

With Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama facing a crucial day in their campaign to win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, organised labour is having its day in the limelight. With no viable or independent alternative on the horizon, US union leaders still hitch their wagon to the Democratic Party in the hope that they will have some influence when and if their nominee occupies the White House.

In Ohio, one of the industrial heartlands of the country now hit by the impact of globalisation, just 14% of workers are organised in trade unions. The division is between the older, skilled and white collar unions like the American Federation of Teachers and the machinists’ union who support Clinton on the one side, and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) which draws considerable support from African Americans on the other.

Unions like the SEIU, the powerful Teamsters Union, Unite Here (hotel workers) and the United Food and Commercial Workers broke away from the AFL-CIO [TUC] in 2005 to form the Change to Win coalition. With a few exceptions most of the Change to Win unions support Obama, with some key industrial unions like the United Steelworkers and the United Auto Workers remaining neutral. Most of the Change to Win unions see Obama’s ability to rise from obscurity and mobilise large numbers as an inspiration to breathe life into union recruitment, which, as in the UK, has been in general decline.

Surprisingly large numbers of Americans have become involved in political debate through the Clinton-Obama battle. Obama’s rhetoric, however empty most of the time, has given some expression to the underdog in American politics. Obama has cleverly crafted his politics to tap in to the disenchantment with the politics of the old establishment. In many states, Obama’s campaign seems to have come from nowhere to challenge Clinton’s veterans. Young first-timers as well as older volunteers are staffing offices in obscure towns, using laptops and the Internet to co-ordinate the campaign and mobilise support.

But we’d better not get carried away by the image-makers. Despite his claim to being a new broom that will sweep clean, there is no way Obama will truly challenge the real power behind the presidency in the United States. He has no intention of overturning the military-industrial complex behind Bush and his global wars.

Yet we can already feel the railroading into supporting the Democrats coming on. It’s sobering to observe how an anti-corporate campaigner like author Naomi Klein takes it for granted that Guardian readers will back Obama, making bleating pleas that he should use his campaign to stand up against “islamophobia” and take seriously his mission to “repair the world”.

The one candidate who has consistently challenged the corporations, Ralph Nader, is already under fire from liberals like Joshua Holland of the AlterNet Independent Media Institute. After demonstrating that – counter to Democratic Party propaganda - Nader was not responsible for handing over victory to Bush in Florida or elsewhere in 2000, and that he has the right to run, Holland then goes on to say that he won’t be voting for him, on the grounds that as an “independent liberal”, he needs to “beat down the reactionary right”. Another supposedly independent thinker, Timothy Noah of Slate takes a similar stance, saying that he disagrees with Nader that the Democrats and Republicans are too similar.

To say that we know the Democrats are grim but the Republicans are even grimmer is a truly hopeless political perspective. It seeks to force voters to remain within the two-party cycle, where Tweedledum and Tweedledee take turns in running the country on behalf of corporate power. After all, it was the Clinton presidency that opened the door for Bush and it is the Democrats who in Congress, despite their majority in both houses, sit on their hands and allow Bush free rein. As Nader once said, if the Democrats are indeed the lesser of two evils, they are still evil!

Corinna Lotz
Secretary, A World to Win

Monday, March 03, 2008

A murderous smokescreen

The Israelis have done this so many times before that it’s hard to find the appropriate words to describe their latest murderous onslaught in occupied Palestine. More than 100 Palestinians dead in Gaza, including many women and children, is just the cold statistic of a military action that cannot hide a deep political crisis inside Israel itself.

The Israeli attacks were said to be in response for rocket attacks from Gaza, which are fired as an act of resistance from people living in what is effectively a large-scale prison camp, surrounded by massive military might. Gazans are deprived of basic supplies like food, medicine and power and isolated from the rest of the world, as well as fellow Palestinians on the West Bank.

Behind all this is a crude attempt to create a smokescreen to smother Israeli public opinion in nationalism and outright racist attitudes. The cat was let out of the bag last week when deputy defence minister Matan Vilnai threatened Palestinians in the occupied Gaza Strip with a "holocaust", a term rarely used in Israel outside discussions of the Nazi genocide during World War II.

While Israeli leaders escalate the violence and threats, some other top officials and a vast majority of the Israeli public support direct talks with Hamas to achieve a mutual ceasefire, something Hamas leaders in Gaza have repeatedly offered for months. "Sixty-four percent of Israelis say the government must hold direct talks with the Hamas government in Gaza toward a cease-fire and the release of captive soldier Gilad Shalit," the Israeli daily Haaretz reported on 27 February citing a Tel Aviv University poll. The report noted that half of Likud supporters and large majorities of Kadima and Labour party voters support such talks and only 28% of Israelis still oppose them.

Knesset Member Yossi Beilin, leader of the left-Zionist Meretz-Yahad party, called for an agreed ceasefire with Hamas, noting that "there have been at least two requests from Hamas, via a third party, to accept a cease-fire, Haaretz reported on 29 February. Israel's public security minister, Avi Dichter, visiting Sderot [where many rockets have landed] the previous day, criticized Israel's military escalation, saying: "Whoever talks about entering and occupying the Gaza Strip, these are populist ideas which I don't connect to, and in my opinion, no intelligent person does either."

And, in an interview with the American magazine Mother Jones, published on 19 February, the former head of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency, Efraim Halevy, repeated calls for Israel and the US to negotiate a ceasefire with Hamas. Dismissing lurid rhetoric about the group, Halevy stated that "Hamas is not al-Qaida," and "is not subservient to Tehran".

Ali Abunimah co-founder of The Electronic Intifada, and author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse, asks: “The question remains as to why when the vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians, some senior Israeli officials, and Hamas leaders are all talking about a ceasefire, the Israeli government refuses to accept one and the US refuses to call for one ...The Palestinian and Israeli populations are exhausted by the relentless bloodshed, however unequal its toll. They are paying the price of a failed policy, pushed by Washington and its local clients, which attempts to demonise, isolate and destroy any movement that resists the order that the United States seeks to impose on the region.”

He is right. Now is the time for bold initiatives by Palestinian leaders to break the deadlock and expose the Israeli government. The two-state plan for the region is defunct and should be abandoned. Palestinians should campaign for a single, secular state for all the people of the area. Whether Hamas or Fatah have the capacity to alter course in this direction is another matter.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor