Monday, June 30, 2008

In praise of open studios

In a week that saw yet more record sales at the big art auction houses, it’s worth remembering the many thousands of unsung artists who don’t reach the limelight. While millions were changing hands at auction, artists throughout the country were opening their doors to the public at large.

A Monet water lilies painting was sold for £42 million at Christies last Monday. The other big auction house, Sotheby’s, notched up £102 million worth making a total of £246 million of sales of Impressionist and modern art in just three days.

These fantasy prices reveal that the super-rich are immune from the credit crunch. In the words of one commentator: “The middle-tier buyer who would spend up to a million pounds [!] on a work of art, is cut out of the market.” Public galleries and museums are also being priced out of the market, leaving major works of art in the hands of private collectors.

But as the insecurity-driven, art market bubble keeps on expanding, fuelled by falling shares and the credit crunch, most practising artists are getting on with their lives. And, just now, over the summer months, their work can be appreciated and enjoyed by people with no money at all as studios are thrown open to the public.

For absolutely free, anyone can visit any number of studios, look at paintings, sculpture, ceramics and textiles made by talented and highly trained artists, young and old. Unlike the luxurious auction houses of St James where bidding is dominated by hedge fund owners, Russian billionaires, Chinese industrialists, Indian technology entrepreneurs and Middle Eastern sheiks, here original art works can be admired, discussed and even purchased at low prices.

The advent of artist-owned co-operatives like Space (Space Provision, Artistic, Cultural and Educational) Studios, organised by Bridget Riley and Peter Sedgely in 1968, was a pioneering attempt to democratise art production and give artists a space to work. But rising property prices saw commercial factors become increasingly dominant. The famous Space Studios shut down in 2000. Some artists persisted in setting up co-operatives over which they could have control, while others found it easier to operate studios in their own homes. Or they moved to towns or even other countries where low-price spaces could still be found.

Over the last decades more and more artists have continued to group together in a variety of ways - in studio blocks, neighbourhoods or in towns to display their work, meet the public and sell directly to people. At artists’ open studios, there is a democratic spirit, both amongst the creators and the viewers.

Critically acclaimed and successful artists mix and mingle with the unknown and young, subjecting their work to the eyes and comments of anyone who can walk in off the street. Often unsupported by local authorities or sponsors, artists generously offer their time, energy and even refreshments to those who make the effort to drop by.

Just one of many examples is Brockley Open Studios, in south London, which has now been going for 16 years, in which 39 artists opened their homes over the weekend and are keeping them open until this evening. Brockley and other open studios offer a glimpse of the enormous creativity that exists in society at large. Even without great encouragement, people are clearly ready to make sacrifices to do the creative things they consider important. It’s high time that this way of transforming people’s lives was allowed to flourish and spread to society at large.

Corinna Lotz

Friday, June 27, 2008

The rich cash in

Shares in General Motors have fallen to the lowest level for over half a century, a sure sign of the deepening global recession. Just as stark in the world of fantasy finance is the one-third decline in the value attributed to Countrywide, the country’s largest mortgage lender, since it was merged with the Bank of America in January.

The indications for the UK economy are just as dire. Mortgage approvals are 56% down on a year ago, and repayment costs are spiralling. Michael Hume, an economist at Lehman Brothers investment bank, says the statistics paint a "very worrying picture of how the credit crunch is unfolding", adding that a US-style housing slump looks "increasingly likely". American banks in May repossessed twice as many homes as they did a year and prices have plummeted.

HBOS, the parent of Bank of Scotland and Halifax, Britain's largest mortgage lenders, keeps revising its estimates. It now expects British house prices to fall 9% in 2008. But Jeremy Leach, of the British Property Opportunities Fund, expects it to be more like 20%. Meanwhile the gamblers in the world of derivatives are betting that Britain's housing downturn won’t bottom out until 2011 by which time average prices will have fallen by around 30% from their peak last August.

Jeremy Leaf, of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors warns: "The property industry will not be the only casualty in the fall-out from the credit crunch, with the high street and purveyors of a range of household goods, including furniture and white goods, also feeling the pinch. Construction workers such as plumbers and bricklayers will start to see employment opportunities dry up as the pace of housing transactions continues to abate."

And it’s no better in the commercial market, with warnings of falls in prime property rents in 2008/09 of 15 to 35% per cent. It’s no wonder that the world’s richest people have been selling their property investments and transferring their wealth to the emerging markets where opportunities for speculative investments can still be found. The World Wealth Report, compiled by Merrill Lynch and Capgemini, underscores how the world’s rich have managed to avoid the heavy losses that have hit the banking business and continue to reap disproportionate benefits from expansion in the global economy.

The report says that the wealth of the world’s high net worth individuals (HNWIs) increased 9.4% to $40.7 trillion (that’s 12 zeros) in 2007, adding: “The number of HNWIs in the world increased 6% in 2007 to 10.1 million, the number of ultra high net worth individuals increased by 8.8%, and for the first time in the history of the report, the average assets held by HNWIs exceeded US$4 million.”

While the obscenely rich cash in, the rest of us have nowhere else to go in this crisis of capitalism’s making. We need different solutions which point towards a society based on equality and not exploitation. Markets in land and property should be ended, joining the credit markets which have been effectively closed for almost a year. For-profit, shareholder-owned banks should be turned into mutual funds. The land should be taken over by community land trusts. Community-based not-for-profit control and participation will be needed to decide how best to use scarce resources to meet the needs of the majority.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Putting an end to 'business as usual'

On the day the government launches its renewable energy strategy, it might consider the fact that while three-quarters of British people are worried about climate change, more than half have no confidence in political leaders to tackle the crisis. According to a recent Mori poll, two-thirds want more government action, but just as many are cynical about the real purpose of so-called “green taxes”.

An expert panel set up by the government itself, the Renewables Advisory Board, to advise on achieving the target of 15% renewable energy by 2020 says the most crucial component is political leadership. RAB states that “a rapid development of a transformed energy framework with radically new economic, political and social drivers is necessary”.

But New Labour’s strategy has none of that sense of urgency. It relies on the market to deliver targets and sticks to profit-driven, business-as-usual “solutions”. And there is no sign that the government is looking at a reduction in fossil fuel use – indeed it plans to allow new coal-fired power stations. And Gordon Brown spent last week in a futile bid to get the Saudis to pump more oil and to invest in his mad nuclear power expansion project, which new planning laws will facilitate.

So people are absolutely right to have no confidence in governments to lead us into this new energy era. The big question is, what kind of leadership is going to do it? Across the country thousands of people are setting up Transition Towns, in an attempt to make the switch to a post-oil era by unleashing local activism and talents.

Transition Towns (TT) have an up-front, anti-political approach. For example at the launch of the Transition Town meeting in Lewes, a member of the audience urged TT Lewes to join the campaign against construction of a rubbish incinerator but it was made clear that this was inappropriate as not everyone might be against it. The same is true in Ireland, where TT stood aside from the community campaign to stop Shell building a new pipeline at Rossport. Transition Towns want to focus on the things people already agree about.

The difficulty with this approach is that it promotes the idea that there can be a managed, painless transition to a post-oil era. This is the kind of environmental consensus the government itself promotes because it does not disturb business interests whilst focusing people’s energies on individual and local activity.

But we cannot any longer take the risks of ignoring the crisis-driven, life-and-death nature of the global energy crisis. As the authors of The Rocky Road to Transition Towns (by TT members and supporters) argue: “Communities must face up to issues such as nuclear expansion, market-based solutions to climate change such as carbon trading and offsetting, agro fuels and food scarcity, developments such as airport expansion and resource extraction. These things all occur through active government policies, which try to maintain the economic and political, ‘business as usual’ scenarios. Unfortunately, left unchallenged they could also wipe out the best efforts at local sustainability, like a tsunami in front of a sand castle.”

The authors of are right to open up this debate. Transition Towns represent a positive recognition that citizens cannot – and should not - rely on governments to deal with the energy crisis. Yet a localised, individual and generally non-political, approach leaves unchallenged the corporations’ control of energy production and fails to question the ruinous capitalist approach to the economy in general. As difficult as it might be, we have to make a transition beyond the rule of the corporations and market “solutions” that actually intensify the problem. That means struggling for a new consensus rather than simply rehashing the government’s message.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

How to fight price rises

As 600,000 low-paid council workers prepare to strike on July 16 and 17 in support of a 6% rise in their meagre wages, the cause of their anger – soaring prices – shows no sign of abating. On the contrary, gas and electricity prices are set to climb 40% this winter while the cost of food and fuel continues to rocket.

A 48-hour strike called by ever-so-reluctant Unison leaders – who have sat back for years watching their members’ wages fall further and further behind - will make no impact on the New Labour government. Brown and Darling are determined to make ordinary people pay for the economic crisis. The council workers have been offered a below-inflation pay offer of 2.45%, which therefore amounts to a pay cut.

The question is: How can we halt price rises that are eating away at people’s incomes? Millions of families are seeing their cost of living rise by 6.7% this year – more than double the headline inflation rate of 3.3. Official figures show that an average basket of foodstuffs has risen in price by almost 8% over the past year, or £8 for every £100 spent. Even if Unison won its claim, its members would still be worse off by the end of the year.

This is because the major food and energy corporations simply pass on costs where they can as they are in the business of making profits not feeding people or providing affordable fuel. And the corporations sing the same song as the government – prices are soaring because of global “market conditions”. These are quite obviously beyond human control so consumers will just have to grin and bear it.

What rubbish! The pressures are indeed global in nature but their impact is local and within our power to deal with. We don’t have to worship at the altar of the capitalist market if we don’t want to. If Unison leaders were really serious about improving their members’ pay, they could launch a campaign along the following lines:

  1. Create price committees of producers and consumers. These should analyse the real cost of food and fuel, exposing the profiteering and price-fixing that goes and propose sustainable, not-for-profit alternatives.
  2. Demand that supermarket chains cut prices. Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda and Morrisons racked up £4.5 billion in profits last year alone by exploiting producers, staff and consumers. Instead of distributing profits to shareholders, the money should be used the money to mitigate the effects of global “market pressures”.
  3. Redirect government priorities. Just by ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and cancelling the Trident nuclear missile replacement programme, state subsidies could be made available to make food and fuel affordable.
  4. Campaign for social ownership and control. If, as is likely, the supermarket chains refuse to play ball, then the union should win popular support for them to be taken over and run by staff, consumers and local communities with the support of expert, financial, technical and scientific advice.
  5. Affordable food and energy. Prices should be determined by the costs of production, taking into account sustainable methods of agriculture and processing, the livelihoods of those involved in production, distribution and retailing and the purchasing power of consumers. The same approach could just as easily be applied to energy supplies.
  6. New political solutions. Obviously, implementing such a programme would require the support of government, backed up by an independent social movement. No one expects New Labour to take such a stand and it’s ridiculous (and a waste of effort) to suggest they do. Just like the Tories, Brown and company are tied to big business interests. So Unison and other union leaders should acknowledge that the old politics is finished and that creative, new solutions must be found.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Military move in on universities

Military involvement in the funding of research, teaching and training at British universities is on the rise. Pushing this agenda is the government, which has maintained Britain’s unenviable position as the second biggest arms exporter and devotes a third of state research and development (R&D) funding to military projects.

The trend is part of the growing commercialisation of universities and their subordination to business interests under the impact of corporate-driven globalisation. Firstly, R&D is cheaper when carried out by universities than by the corporations themselves. Secondly, the main objective of the universities as laid down by the government is to contribute to economic growth. Ruth Kelly, then education secretary, spelled it out in January 2006 when she told a funding council that higher education should “be partly or wholly designed, funded and provided by employers”.

This orientation is reinforced at every turn. Last year the Sainsbury Review on science and technology for the Treasury spoke warmly of “knowledge transfer” from the universities. Sainsbury’s team met with military corporations and the American defence department.

Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) has campaigned against the growing links between universities and military research. A new SGR report Behind Closed Doors, reveals that since 2002 a number of military-university partnerships have been put in place. Of 43 UK universities investigated, no fewer than 42 were found to receive military funding. Cambridge University received 11% of its domestic and 15% of its overseas research income from military sources.

Much of the funding is obscured, despite the universities presenting themselves as open and accountable institutions. The SGR report noted: “Detailed, comprehensive data on military involvement in universities was very difficult to obtain even when the Freedom of Information Act was invoked. The causes were a combination of incomplete record-keeping, commercial restrictions, pressures on researchers and, most disturbingly, evasiveness on the part of officials.” As for the researchers, the report not surprisingly found they were less able to express any ethical concerns openly because of the pressure from powerful interests as well as university administrators.

The SGR believes that the “war on terror” has fuelled what it calls a “relentless increase in the global military burden”, with a growing emphasis on high-technology, weapons-based approaches to tackling security issues. The priorities for global capitalism are beyond dispute. In 2006, governments in the richer countries spent a total of $96 billion on military R&D, but only $56 billion on R&D related to health and environmental protection. Climate change R&D just topped the $1 billion mark worldwide.

The sentiments expressed by SGR in its report are absolutely right: “Universities are a cornerstone of an educated and healthy democracy, and there needs to be a profound shift away from seeing them in narrowly economic terms. Research, teaching and training need to contribute more explicitly to social justice, climate change mitigation and to challenge other threats to global security, and should not simply be seen as a primary means to increase business profits.”

Optimistically, they are addressed to the New Labour government, which is in bed with the global corporations and their takeover of the universities. While this unholy alliance dominates politics, the universities will continue down the slippery slope of becoming the taxpayer-funded R&D arm of big business.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Monday, June 23, 2008

Hunger haunts the Big Apple

Problems of hunger and malnutrition in many parts of the developing world are common knowledge. But less well known is that in the United States itself, the world’s richest country, growing numbers are finding it difficult to put food on their table as prices rise at their sharpest for nearly 20 years.

Things are so serious that campaigner Jesse Jackson Jr has called on US Congress to legislate a temporary 20% increase in food stamps as people relying on them are falling short of the minimum needed. Significantly, many people in work rely on government food stamps to eke out their supplies. And things are set to get far worse, as floods in the corn growing states of Iowa and Illinois will send the price of corn even higher. It has tripled over the past two years, partly driven by the switch to biofuel production instead of food.

The Food Bank for New York City, which collects and distributes food to provide food for the hungry, has announced that around 3.1 million New Yorkers – over a third of the city’s population – had problems over the last year. That figure is up by 55% from 2003 levels.

More people than ever are relying on soup kitchens and “food pantries” where free food is distributed, to eke out their dwindling diets. A year-long survey revealed that in the middle age group (ages 36-64), nearly half of city residents had difficulty affording food in 2007. And worst hit in terms of a worsening of their circumstances are middle-income residents.

The number of residents relying on soup kitchens and food pantries rose by 24%, from one million to 1.3 million over the last three years. The New York Food Bank report found that one out of five households were unable to save to cushion any loss of household income and would not be able to afford food as a consequence of illness, unemployment or rising prices.

People like June Jacobs-Cuffee of Brooklyn, interviewed by the New York Times, who has to share her $120 a month in food stamps with her 19-year-old epileptic son, can only make do by “very careful budgeting”. New Yorkers are specially affected because food costs there are higher than most other parts of the US. Across the US, the cost of what the government considers a minimum nutritional diet has risen 7.2% in the last year alone. Some staples, such as eggs have gone up 20%.

With rapid and continuing rises on a global level of staples like rice, corn, wheat, eggs and many other foodstuffs, there is no end in sight to the problems of middle and low income people in the United States, as indeed elsewhere, including Britain. While the production and distribution of food remains in the hands of a small number of global corporations, profit margins and not the needs of ordinary people, will remain the priority.

Far from being insoluble, the world food crisis could actually be ended, certainly in the view of the United Nations, whose food agency met in Rome earlier this month. The figure it came up with for ending global hunger was just $30 billion. This compares with the $340 billion approved by US Congress for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2009 alone. Feeding hungry New Yorkers was the last thing on their minds as they voted through another year of war and destruction.

Corinna Lotz
AWTW secretary

Friday, June 20, 2008

Lies and more lies over pay

Chancellor Alistair Darling has joined forces with Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, to admit their inability to prevent spiralling prices and deepening recession. Except for one thing. In order to protect corporate profits they have launched an assault on the living standards of public and private workers by denouncing any attempt to keep pay levels in line with inflation.

They used a twisted, but expected logic. Whilst the problems in the economy are due to global conditions beyond the control of government, this doesn’t prevent them from holding UK workers responsible for causing inflation. Darling and King warned of the dangers of a return to the 1970s, when, they allege, big wage increases were the cause of spiralling price rises.

The facts, however, are stronger than the misinformation (and ignorance) of the defenders of capital within New Labour and the Bank of England. Stephen Roach, head of Morgan Stanley Asia, is one of the world’s most respected investment bankers. Writing last week he had to admit that things were different: "Today’s stagflation risks are very different from those that wreaked such havoc 35 years ago. Unlike in that earlier period, wages in the developed economies have been delinked from prices. That all but eliminates the automatic indexation features of the once dreaded wage-price spiral – perhaps the most insidious feature of the ‘great inflation’ of the 1970s."

And a year and a half ago, Roach really showed what had happened to wages in the period since the 1970s when he wrote: "At work is a powerful asymmetry in the impacts of globalisation and global competition on the world’s major industrial economies namely, record highs in the returns accruing to capital and record lows in the rewards going to labour." In plain English, the real value of wages has fallen over the last three decades for many workers, while profits (and bonuses) have gone in the other direction. Not our fault then.

Meanwhile Dave Prentis, general secretary of public sector union, Unison, grabbed some headlines for himself, threatening to bring down Brown’s government over pay. Prentis is worried that his members are deserting not just New Labour, but also deserting the unions which have sat on their hands for decades as jobs have been exported and living standards fallen.

But behind the posturing, Prentis is still trying to keep his members tied to New Labour. His conference speech ended with these tired sentiments: "Gordon Brown and Labour need to become, once more, the party with vision, the party that marks itself out as the champion of working people, of social justice and fairness, of the poor and the vulnerable: the party of high quality, properly funded public services, finally breaking the costly chains of privatisation."

This is not going to happen and Prentis knows it. His members are angry because Unison refused to oppose a three-year pay deal in the NHS which, with inflation going through the roof and 40% energy price rises to come, looks and feels like a pay cut. Unison’s rank-and-file will have no confidence in Prentis’s drum-banging while cosying up to New Labour at the same time. They are going to have to force the union leaders to act, and then watch them like hawks, in order to defend their standard of living. When the anger of Unison and other low-paid trade unionists blows, as it surely will, it could easily sweep both Prentis and New Labour away with it.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Planet pays the price for energy crisis

As the energy crisis deepens, global capitalism is scraping the bottom of the oil barrel, leaving behind ruined land and communities. Climate change campaigners occupying farmland earmarked for open cast mining in the Derbyshire countryside are highlighting one key aspect of this.

The “Leave it in the Ground” campaign has moved on to a 122 hectare site owned by UK Coal, which plans to extract 1m tonnes, but will no doubt aim for more once they get going. That is what happened at Stobbswood in Northumberland, where the original permission covered 1,500 acres for 15 years up to 2004. Extraction is only now coming to an end, with communities suffering years of coal dust, noise pollution and giant machines rumbling through their villages day and night.

Coal companies always claim they will restore the land but that is not the experience of people in Greengairs in Lanarkshire where an open cast mine was turned over to become Scotland’s biggest landfill. Their village was left on the edge of a stinking waste dump, and designated an “area of sacrifice”. Now a huge incinerator is planned to add to the pollution.
This is the story right across the world. Governments support coal companies to override community opposition. In Bangladesh, protests against open cast mining by Asia Energy at Phubari were initially successful but now the military-backed government plans to give the London-based company the go-ahead.

And an even filthier form of extraction is on the rise, as oil sand extraction becomes economical. Oil sand is a mixture of clay, sand, water and bitumen, with an estimated 2 trillion barrels of oil available from massive deposits in areas such as Alberta, Utah and the Orinoco Basin. Currently, tar sands represent about 40% of Canada's oil production, and output is expanding rapidly. Around 20% of U.S. crude oil and products come from Canada, and a substantial amount comes from tar sands. Whole areas are strip mined, and then a costly and polluting recovery process extracts the oil deposits. Two tons of sand produce just one barrel of oil and the extraction process uses vast amounts of energy, chemical solvents and water.

The question is can the planet survive capitalist energy markets? This week George Bush asked Congress to lift the decades-old ban on oil extraction in the Alaska wilderness. Now there is a drive to pump CO2 into spent oil fields, including in the north sea, to make the “dregs” accessible. Greenpeace warns that the risks of ecological damage are incalculable, and that in any case the retention time in the ocean is too short for it to be worth doing. Our prediction: the oil companies will soon be trying to get projects to pump waste CO2 into dying oil fields registered for subsidy under the Clean Development Mechanism.

Meanwhile the British government is planning to allow construction of eight giant coal-fired power stations, including the one at Kingsnorth in Kent which will emit around 8m tonnes of greenhouse gas a year. And to fuel it, the drive for strip mining will increase.

We have not even touched here on the issue of uranium mining, the most dangerous, polluting and health-damaging of all. Prime Minister Brown last week repeated his megalomaniac dream of a UK economic boom based on building a world-wide network of nuclear power stations. He also repeated the crazy offer of bribes to local councils agreeing to bury nuclear waste (in the town hall cellars presumably).

Yesterday the energy companies confirmed that domestic fuel prices will increase by up to 40% over the winter – whilst at the same time Alistair Darling was urging wage restraint (not on the bosses of the energy companies, obviously).

The growing contradiction between the market measures to meet capitalism’s energy needs, and the survival of ecology, human life and livelihoods, is now creating volatile social tensions. We need to strengthen the survival side of that contradiction, and create energy plans that prioritise the needs of people and planet – not profit.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The 'Tsar' of Downing Street

Louise Casey is an archetypal New Labour apparatchik. She doesn’t care too much about human rights (if at all) and believes that the state’s priority is to identify and punish people as a way of changing behaviour. Listening to her is enough to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

Casey is a classic case of a poacher turned gamekeeper. She made her name in the housing world, rising to deputy director of Shelter. Recruited to New Labour in 1997, Casey was appointed to head the government's rough sleepers unit and earned the title, "homelessness Tsar". She immediately declared that handing out soup and sleeping bags to those living on the street was merely perpetuating their misery.

The government was determined to rid the streets of the destitute and claimed a great success. Her old employers disputed her claims. The charity points out that the number of homeless people is at record levels and now stands over 100,000. "Homelessness is now a hidden problem. We want the government to build more affordable homes," says Shelter.

After this great achievement, Casey was appointed “respect Tsar” and headed the Home Office’s so-called anti-social behaviour (ASB) unit. This immediately set about criminalising young people by handing them ASB orders (Asbos) through the civil courts. When the orders were invariably broken, the teenagers were often jailed. Other “undesirables” also became targets, leading Harry Fletcher, from the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo), to say of Casey. "She seems to be defending every Asbo ever made. We are concerned that the original purpose of the legislation has been exceeded."

Napo is one of 30 organisations, including Liberty and the Howard League for Penal Reform, that banded together to form "Asbo Concern". Fletcher adds: "[The orders] are being used to sweep anybody off the street who is deemed to be undesirable: the mentally ill, those with Asperberger's syndrome and so on. People are being locked up for breaching orders imposed for offences, such as prostitution or begging, that are not imprisonable.” While she was “respect Tsar”, Casey famously made an expletive-ridden speech to senior police officers which joked about binge drinking.

After the respect issue was taken care of, Casey turned her attention to the criminal justice system. Now A cabinet office adviser and would-be “crime Tsar”, Casey today announced that the system is "distant, unaccountable and unanswerable". Her analysis was typically brutal and authoritarian: "We're all a little tired of hearing about the human rights and civil liberties of people who break the law. For years we have been listening to that - who is speaking up for the rights of law-abiding decent people?" she told BBC Breakfast. She recommends that offenders serving community sentences be made more "visible" to identify that they are being punished for breaking the law.

Casey said: "Once these people commit crimes they disappear into the system. We need to get over some of the hand-wringing that says we cannot put them in a uniform." She also suggests the government should consider contracting out enforcement of community work from the probation service and that probation officers be given powers to extend the time served by offenders on community service.

So now Britain is set to become a sort of Guantanamo Bay camp, where the unfortunate inmates at the notorious Camp X-ray wear orange jump suits so that they can be more easily identified. When you see someone in the street wearing an offender’s “uniform”, you will have Casey and New Labour to thank for the latest in a long line of human rights abuses that resonate with some of the darkest days of European history.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Afghanistan: Brown in Bush's pocket

The love-in between George W. Bush and Gordon Brown in Downing Street yesterday could not disguise the fact that events in Afghanistan are spiralling out of control. Brown’s decision to send more British soldiers to Afghanistan (while yielding to Bush over maintaining troop levels in Iraq) is a real sign that the occupying forces are losing it.

President Hamid Karzai has threatened to take the fight against the Taliban beyond his country’s borders into Pakistan. Karzai’s sable-rattling outburst is not surprising. His always shaky control over his country has been dramatically challenged yet again. Since the weekend, Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second city, has been in a state of emergency following a highly successful jailbreak operation carried out by the Taliban. All 1,200 inmates were freed, including around 400 Taliban members. So powerful was the attack that nearby NATO troops took cover in their base and arrived too late to prevent any escapes.

In the last couple of days, the Taliban have taken over many villages near Kandahar. Yet only last week, the British commander of Helmand Task Force, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith announced that the Taliban insurgency had been beaten back and that its local leadership had been “decapitated”. Does he still believe that?

The truth is that neither continued reinforcements bringing NATO troop levels up to 53,000, nor shocking brutality against prisoners and fighters have advanced the fight against the Taliban and against the presumed presence of Al Qaeda fighters one iota. In fact, with 102 killed since 2001, British causalities are rising rapidly and US forces are sustaining increasingly heavy losses, with more Americans killed in Afghanistan last month than in Iraq.

Some optimists may be harbouring the illusion that with such reverses for NATO forces and with the Bush era drawing to a close, Brown and the next US president will re-think their options and withdraw from Afghanistan. But don’t hold your breath. Congress has voted $165 billion more funds for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, still believes that US forces are “on a path to victory”.

And Barack Obama’s view of the so-called war against terror differs little from that of Bush. Last August he proclaimed: “We will not repeat the mistake of the past, when we turned our back on Afghanistan following Soviet withdrawal. As 9/11 showed us, the security of Afghanistan and America is shared. And today, that security is most threatened by the al Qaeda and Taliban sanctuary in the tribal regions of northwest Pakistan … It's a tough place. But that is no excuse. There must be no safe-haven for terrorists who threaten America. We cannot fail to act because action is hard.”

And, don’t forget Obama’s thinly-veiled threat to Pakistan’s sovereignty: ”I understand that President Musharraf has his own challenges. But let me make this clear. There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will.”

The US and Britain are locked into destructive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which have had the effect of dismembering both countries, plunging them into a worse state than before occupation. Soldiers are dying not in the cause of “freedom and democracy” or for the spurious “war on terror” but for strategic, big power political reasons. These are about access to precious resources like oil and reining in the ambitions of countries like Russia. This is the deadly course New Labour is locked into (with the support of the Tories). Ending these military adventures will require some fundamental political changes in both America and Britain.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

Monday, June 16, 2008

Irish voters make a stand

So Ireland has voted the "wrong" way yet again. What can you do with them, those pesky Irish voters who have chosen to bite the hand that once fed them so generously, how exasperating! If it weren't for the European Union (EU), Ireland would still be mired in poverty and unemployment – or so the story goes.

Now God forgive 'em, the ungrateful lot have gone and forgotten all that and voted the Lisbon Treaty into oblivion, alone of all the 27 nations who didn't even get that chance. They did it once before with the Nice Treaty, until after being roundly scolded they were made go right back into the polling booths and vote again until they got it right, which they duly did. That's not going to happen this time however, partly because it would be just too blatant but mainly because the margin of victory for the No vote at 53.4% for to 46.6% against, was too substantial to question.

It could have been a larger margin however if the issues involved had been clearer and the No campaigners had not involved some of the murkier characters and issues in Irish life and politics. Against the Lisbon agreement were ultra-fervent Catholics and right-wing nationalists. They were terrified about abortion, more foreigners coming to take jobs, compulsory euthanasia, loss of sovereignty and traditional neutrality.

They were joined by smaller left-wing political parties, dissident Republican groups, republican socialists, anarchists and the left of the unions. They raised other issues: fears of even more privatisation of public services, further loss of trade union rights and the forcing down of pay and worsening of conditions that a market in services and increasing liberalisation would entail. They also questioned the consolidation of a move towards the militarisation of the EU, the lessening of national sovereignty and a consequential compromising of Ireland’s neutrality.

A degree of overlap therefore, which for those who see themselves as progressive and liberal in the better sense of the word, muddied the waters a little too much and gave them no choice other than to vote Yes and so distance themselves from the, lost in the past bog-trotters, on the one hand, and the left on the other. So some genuine xenophobia there and plenty of concerns portrayed as xenophobic by the Yes neo-liberals. Even that is not the whole story since the No side was also occupied by some business interests and one or two maverick millionaires, fearful that the low corporate tax enjoyed by investors would be forfeited. The Yes campaign meanwhile involved all the vested interests imaginable, from the bishops, to business people and corporations, the right wing of the trade unions and all the mainstream political parties, including the Greens.

The pro-treaty campaign lost because the political establishment was too complacent, it is claimed, and indeed they did take things for granted. But it was also apparently the broadcast media's “fault” because they gave equal time to both sides, which by law they were forced to do. Balance in reporting all sides of issues - bad. But in the end it was the Irish people who for all sorts of reasons, not all noble it's true, but mostly out of a general wariness of the European bureaucrats and as clear-eyed a reading of the potentially dire effects of this deliberately obscure document allowed, voted it out, albeit on a low turn-out.

The decision of Jose Manuel Barosso, Gordon Brown and other EU leaders? Oh well, what's the electorate got to do with it anyhow? Let's just plough on regardless and ratify. Can't let a little thing like democracy spoil the Euro party, especially something as dangerously populist as a referendum. Fighting for genuine participative democracy is the only way to ensure that we are not steam-rollered into an all powerful supra-EU state, or any other kind of oppressive state or set of institutions for that matter. The vigilance of the Irish electorate in throwing out Lisbon is as a good as starting point as any to launch such a campaign .

Fiona Harrington

Friday, June 13, 2008

Pouring oil on troubled waters

The start of a four-day strike by hundreds of oil tanker drivers brings a new angle to the energy crisis which is convulsing countries around the world. The drivers are employed by contractors Hoyer and Suckling, two haulage companies delivering Shell fuel products to one tenth of UK garages.

The drivers’ union Unite says that Shell tanker drivers today earn a basic wage of just under £32,000 per year for a 48-hour working week. In 1992, a typical tanker driver directly employed by Shell earned approximately the same £32,000 per year for a 37-hour week. This is a truly catastrophic 16-year decline in the value of weekly income combined with an almost 30% increase in hours.

It is stark evidence of the typical, brutal increase in the rate of exploitation by global corporations and the less-than-worthless state of trade union leadership. Desperate to avoid a confrontation, Unite assistant general secretary Len McCluskey has been begging Shell to intervene – to no avail.

Now rocketing worldwide inflation – ironically driven by the commodity the drivers deliver - has triggered a social movement that is spreading like last summer’s wildfires. In Asia this week there have been strikes and demonstrations in South Korea, Hong Kong, India and Malaysia, where the government has raised prices by 41% for petrol and 63% for diesel.

In Europe, action by truck drivers in Spain led to 40% of petrol stations in Catalonia running dry, and stocks of fresh food running low in the markets and shops. Drivers in Portugal joined in the strikes and there have been protests in France. Spanish fishermen, driven to desperation by fuel costs, have been on strike since May 30.
One trucker died this week in Spain and another in Portugal. In both cases they were run over while manning picket lines.

The chief executive of Russia's Gazprom this week warned that crude oil might go as high as $250 a barrel next year, far in excess of the record $139 a barrel reached last week. Meanwhile BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy attributes the spiralling price to a continuing increase in the demand for oil whilst global production has been falling. In Russia, BP is in conflict with the four billionaire shareholders in TNK-BP, the largest foreign venture in Russia by a single company. TNK-BP made $5.3 billion net profit in 2007 and produces a quarter of BP's global oil output.

The oil price and supply crisis is fuelling tensions globally. In the Middle East, tensions are rising as Israel and the US are colluding to increase the threat to bomb Iran, with Barack Obama promising to use whatever means are necessary to destroy the country’s nuclear fuel capacity.

Dealing with this festering stew of inter-related crises means taking the energy industries into social ownership and eliminating for-profit production. Only democratic stewardship of limited resources can protect the world’s population from the twin threats of depletion and climate change. Transition Initiatives must take these questions on board if action on energy reduction is to have any but a symbolic significance.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Thursday, June 12, 2008

42 reasons to rid ourselves of New Labour

As another ancient liberty is scrapped by New Labour in forcing through detention without charge for six weeks (relying on the votes of the ultra-reactionaries in Ian Paisley’s party), here are 42 reasons (I’m sure there are many more) why this wretched regime needs ousting:

  1. Increasing detention without charge under 'anti-terror laws' from 48 hours (in 1997) to seven days.
  2. Increasing detention without charge to 14 days.
  3. Increasing detention without charge to 28 days.
  4. Increasing detention without charge to 42 days.
  5. Turning a blind eye to “rendition”, the illegal transfer and torture of terror suspects.
  6. Giving police powers to intercept emails without a warrant.
  7. Introducing ID cards linked to a central database.
  8. Giving the United States powers to extradite British citizens without proving their case in a British court.
  9. Curtailing the right to trial by jury.
  10. Allowing the police to build a DNA database of people questioned but not charged.
  11. Locking up more teenagers than any other country in Europe.
  12. Doubling the prison population to 100,000.
  13. Illegally invading and occupying Afghanistan with US forces.
  14. Putting out blatant lies put out about Iraq’s fabled “weapons of mass destruction”.
  15. Invading and occupying Iraq with US forces, resulting in the death and exile of over a million Iraqis.
  16. Commissioning a new generation of Trident nuclear missiles for nearly £80 billion.
  17. Allowing UK carbon emissions to increase since 1997.
  18. Commissioning a new generation of nuclear power stations.
  19. Giving the go-ahead for airport expansion at Heathrow and Stansted.
  20. Concreting over the countryside, with over 1,100 hectares of Green Belt lost each year since 1997.
  21. Allowing rail fares to soar while subsidising the rail companies, forcing more people to drive to work.
  22. Slashing the number of affordable homes built for rent.
  23. Presiding over and encouraging record house-price inflation.
  24. Presiding over a rapid rise in the numbers of people who can’t pay their mortgages.
  25. Allowing the number of homeless households living in temporary accommodation in England to double to almost 90,000.
  26. Introducing university top-up fees, forcing students to build up massive debts.
  27. Wrecking the education system by the introduction of “Academies” run along business lines and by religious fundamentalists.
  28. Reducing corporation tax to 28%, the lowest among advanced economies.
  29. Abolishing the 10p rate of tax for the lowest paid.
  30. Introducing means-testing for a range of state benefits.
  31. Forcing older people to choose between food and paying for their care at home.
  32. Refusing to fund residential care for older people.
  33. Allowing the gap between rich and poor to increase faster than ever.
  34. Providing a haven for Russian billionaires while demonising asylum seekers and refugees.
  35. Playing the “race card” by dispersing refugees and failing to fund local authorities to provide extra services.
  36. Standing by as the number of young children and older people in poverty increases.
  37. Undermining the NHS through the contracting out of services and “partnerships” with the private sector.
  38. Signing up to a reactionary European Union constitution without allowing voters a say.
  39. Refusing to restore the rights of the trade unions taken away by Tory governments.
  40. Turning Labour into New Labour – a party that speaks and acts for big business interests.
  41. Destroying people’s hopes of a change and allowing the Tories to pose as champions of the poor and civil liberties.
  42. Presiding over a sharp rise in unemployment announced on the very day that detention without charge was passed by the Commons.

    Paul Feldman
    AWTW communications editor

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Poverty street for more young and old

Life for children and pensioners is getting worse under New Labour. Figures published yesterday show that 22.7% of children and 23% of pensioners are living in poverty and that the numbers are rising at both ends of life. After two successive years in which child and pensioner poverty have grown, 3.9 million children and 2.5 million pensioners are living on incomes below the minimum required for a reasonable standard of living.

Poverty is not only to do with unemployment or the low level of state benefits, but is also linked to the level of wages for the lowest paid. In the majority of households where children are living in poverty there is at least one working adult. Only in new member states of Eastern Europe and the poorest countries such as Greece and Portugal, are single parents at greater risk of poverty than in the United Kingdom.

And exactly the same is true of pensioners, where Britain spends just 5.5% of economic wealth on pensions, compared for example to 12.1% in France and 10.5% in Denmark. Whilst more pensioners are being forced to cut back on food, the government is sitting on £5 billion in unclaimed benefits. Because so much of what older people are entitled to is means tested or available only after complicated form-filling, people don’t know they are entitled or how to claim.

Age Concern is justifiably angry at the government’s attitude to older people. Director-general Gordon Lishman said: “The current measures to help pensioners are clearly falling pitifully short of the mark. The government must take urgent and decisive action to prevent more pensioners being pushed into poverty. The state pension should be increased to £124 a week and should be re-linked to earnings as soon as possible, the Winter Fuel Payment should be raised, and much more must be done to get benefits cash to those who need it.” According to a coalition of charities, up to 5.5 million households, including all pensioners and families on the most basic benefits, will struggle to heat their homes by the end of the year as fuel prices rocket.

Now the housing crisis is set to hit pensioners too. Many have subsidised their low incomes by remortgaging their homes. Currently 29% of people aged 70 or over still have mortgage payments to make and 23% of those have seen an increase in mortgage debt from this time last year. The average mortgage debt of the over-70s is currently over £45,000. The debt charity, the Consumer Credit Counselling Service, reports a huge increase in the number of over-60s seeking advice and even being pushed into bankruptcy over the past year.

Brendan Barber, the TUC's general secretary, said the child poverty figures were “disappointing” – a pathetic response from a man who is supposed to represent the interests of working people. He said nothing about the growing economic crisis, the impact of inflation, or that New Labour’s economic disaster is already leading to a growth in unemployment, with the poorest people in the most insecure, part-time, employment being the first to go. Nor did he mention poverty pay, or offer to lead any kind of a fight for these children, families and pensioners.

Because we live in a globalised economy, with production concentrated in the hands of a few transnational corporations, the ability of the state to collect tax (apart from individuals) and to use it to fund welfare and benefits is severely reduced. In any case, Britain’s corporation tax at just 28%,is the lowest of all the major economies.

The TUC recognises this but, along with New Labour, they see no alternative to allowing the market to run its course. But the same market is destroying millions of people's lives and livelihoods. So an alternative must be found, which removes control from self-interested profit-driven corporations and places it in the hands of democratically-elected local and national bodies.

Penny Cole

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A cornered, frightened government

New Labour came to power pledging to end the “boom and bust” policies of the Tories for ever. Now, as the economy slides into recession and prices soar, the Brown government is paralysed, desperate to divert attention away from the mounting crisis by any means. Scaremongering plans to lock up terror suspects for six weeks without charge fit the bill nicely.

That’s one explanation why the beleaguered Brown premiership is pressing on with the vote tomorrow on proposals to give police powers to hold people for 42 days, despite widespread opposition ranging from former attorney-generals to Scotland’s chief law officer. The move would destroy historic, constitutional rights to know what you are accused of and to be charged promptly or set free.

Another reason for soldiering on is that this frightened government is anticipating social unrest and is amassing an array of measures for the state to deploy as and when necessary. Anti-terror laws are already routinely used against climate camps, anti-arms trade protests and women protesting outside the secret Menwith Hill installation in north Yorkshire. "Anti-terror" powers are used to convict individuals merely for alleged membership of "proscribed" political organisations, for possessing DVDs and for downloading web pages.

A social crisis is looming as the credit-fuelled economy continues to unravel day by day. The number of houses changing hands has collapsed to the lowest level in 30 years, a new survey shows. The fall in sales far exceeds the depths of the last housing crash in the 1990s. Neil Hunt, a Derbyshire-based estate agent, said: "Demand has plummeted to a crisis point with sales at their lowest May level in memory. An avalanche of job losses in the housing industry is beginning to materialise which could make current media stories look like the good old days." At the same time, the Bank of England is planning to increase interest rates in a futile response to rising inflation. It has all but given up on attempts to unlock the credit crunch by pumping money into the financial system and is apparently preparing for the worst. Mortgage rates are likely to rise, increasing the pressure on hundreds of people already unable to cope with rising costs.

On that front, the Office of National Statistics yesterday released factory inflation figures, which showed that prices last month increased at the fastest rate since records began 22 years ago, and most probably since 1976. One of Britain's biggest food manufacturers – Northern Foods – has closed a pasta and ready meals factory in Grantham that supplied Marks & Spencer because the supermarket refused to absorb some of the cost increases. Up to 700 people face losing their jobs. A cooked meat plant in Deeside, north Wales, shut down last week with the loss of 70 jobs, because of soaring prices.

With popular support draining away, Brown now depends for survival on a narrow group of senior police officers (most outside London oppose 42 days), the generals doing the government’s bidding in Iraq and Afghanistan, the spy agencies MI5 and MI6 and some sections of the civil service. And, of course, on New Labour’s own MPs who have helped create an authoritarian edifice by approving endless anti-terror laws and surveillance powers. Something along the lines of the Spanish truck drivers’ border blockade over fuel prices could easily destabilise New Labour. Be warned: Desperate, cornered governments can do desperate things to maintain their grip on power.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

Monday, June 09, 2008

The real price of art

This week Russian oligarchs like Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich will have yet another opportunity to spend astronomic sums of money buying art. In May alone, Abramovich spent a total of £60.2 million on two paintings – one by Lucien Freud, the other by Francis Bacon. Sotheby’s auction house is holding a three-day auction of paintings by top Russian artists, including all-time favourite Marc Chagall, and noted modernist Natalia Goncharova, many of them from the period leading up to the October 1917 revolution.

Apparently the previous, long-term owners of these works could no longer afford the insurance premiums as the price of art rises at unprecedented rates, which is why they are now on the market. A Sotheby’s spokeswoman said that prices have gone from £20,000 a few years ago to between £200,000 to £500,000 in just a few years. Russian art offers a superb status symbol for the new class of billionaires who preen at the top of Russian society, as well as sending their children to Britain’s top public schools. In addition, art has come to be seen as safe investment at a time when property prices have become unstable, and the global economy lurches into deeper crisis.

Over the weekend, Abramovich berthed his £152 million yacht on the city centre riverside in St Petersburg so he could join politicians and super-rich oil and mineral company executives meeting at St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. He will have heard Russia’s new president Dimitry Medvedev, who was inaugurated last month, warn that the world might be in the throes of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

In a speech aimed at impressing Russian nationalists, Medvedev said his country could play an ever bigger role in the global economy. What he really meant was that it would be on Russia’s terms. For example, BP’s giant Russian venture, TNK-BP, which pumps a quarter of the company’s oil, failed to reach a hoped-for deal at the St Petersburg summit. The Kremlin prevented an agreement being reached so it could satisfy nationalist pipe-dreams of making Russia into a modern super-power by insisting that non-Russian operators would be excluded. With the price of a barrel of oil soaring by $11 in one day’s trading at the end of last week, Russia’s manoeuvres are bound to increase global tensions and instability.

Significantly, the man who oversaw Russia’s transition to a capitalist economy, Anatoly Chubais, told the gathering that the Russian state could not function properly unless there was a political opposition. Chubais’ remarks were clearly a criticism of the oppressive regime set up by Medvedev’s predecessor, Vladimir Putin. Under Putin, open political opposition was virtually silenced, with many journalists and rights campaigners assassinated or jailed. Virtually all the media is under government control. Forlorn hopes that Medvedev would be different from Putin are rapidly being dashed. In fact, Medvedev is a puppet president. Before he left office, Putin switched all key powers away from the Kremlin to the office of prime minister, which he now occupies.

From within the country itself, voices are being raised against the wealth-crazed autocrats who preside over the chasm between the super rich and poor. In particular, Russia’s recent history has come back to haunt its leaders. Many were angered by Putin’s statement that no one should try to make Russia feel guilty about the Great Terror. A teacher's manual published during his presidency suggested that Stalin's actions were justified by the need to modernise the economy.

Last week, former Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev called for a national museum-memorial to honour the victims of Stalin’s repressions. Gorbachev and 25 others, including poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, signed a statement announcing the initiative, saying that "the current and future generations need memory and knowledge of the repressions of the Stalin regime" which had left few families untouched. Russia’s present leaders are, however, much more interested in the price of oil – and works of art – than anything remotely connected with democracy and historical truth.

Corinna Lotz
AWTW secretary

Friday, June 06, 2008

A perfect economic storm

The Bank of England and the European Central Bank kept interest rates steady this week, despite pressures for a cut to boost economic activity. The central banks were paralysed by contradictory movements in the global economy that render them helpless.

As everyone knows, prices are rocketing, and the things that hit most people hardest are rising the fastest – food, housing, fuel for heating and travel. Lowering interest rates would add to inflationary pressures. At the same time, growth, the one thing that is the essential measure of the health of the capitalist economy, is turning into its opposite - recession and slump.

Amongst the world’s most powerful global corporations car makers Ford, General Motors and Chrysler are shutting some of their most productive factories as demand for fuel-hungry models evaporates. Ford is slashing salaries by 15%, delaying agreed wage increases by three months, ending training programmes, putting a $25,000 limit on life insurance payouts, and sacking as yet unknown thousands of its employees,

The airline industry is shrinking fast. Silverjet, the UK all-business class airline last week suspended all flights. In the US, Credit Suisse analyst Daniel McKenzie expects 2009 domestic capacity “will be in line with where it was in 1998 to 1999, essentially wiping out 10 years of growth for the legacy carriers.” Continental Airlines is cutting 3,000 jobs and taking 73 aircraft out of service. United Airlines is grounding a fifth of its fleet.
According to Giovanni Bisignani, director general of the International Air Transport Association, “oil skyrocketing above $130 per barrel has brought us into uncharted territory. Add in the weakening global economy and this is yet another perfect storm.” Bisignani said 24 airlines had gone bankrupt in the past six months and the sector faced $99bn of extra fuel costs in year ahead. He describes the situation as “desperate and potentially more destructive” than the setbacks the industry had faced in recent years from terrorism, economic slowdown, the outbreak of Sars [severe acute respiratory syndrome] and the war in Iraq.

Despite all of this, shares in airlines have risen. Investors smell profits when companies take action to cut costs. Proponents of the market economy see all this as a necessary shake-out and some are looking for opportunities to revive the economy through new ventures linked to the climate crisis. Ken Lewis, chairman and chief executive of Bank of America, has called for governments to intervene to help accelerate the movement towards renewable energy sources. He says “there is a strong connection between our willingness to diversify our energy sources and our ability to grow the global economy sustainably.”

What’s the betting he was part of the lobby that ensured the US delegation blocked any acknowledgement of the impact of the switch to biofuels on food prices at the UN’s food crisis summit yesterday?

The economic crisis is sharpest in the US and Britain – the two countries weighed down by the largest amounts of debt. Both countries are in a deadly race, to see which one is actually the weakest link in the global capitalist chain and breaks first. Judging by this week’s deeply pessimistic OECD forecast, accompanied by plummeting house prices and consumer spending, Britain could well be in first place.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Thursday, June 05, 2008

UN summits - all talk and no action

Another week, another United Nations-sponsored summit. Another failure to act. The food summit is just ending in Rome with no effective plan to come to the aid of the increasing numbers of people in the developing world who are going hungry because of rising prices and shortages.

From food to biodiversity, it’s the same story. Three species die out every hour of every day. Yet governments who have just finished a 12-day conference on biodiversity could not reach agreement on measures to halt the destruction of species and habitats. Another week, another UN summit. Another failure to act.

There was acknowledgement that the UN Convention on Biodiversity’s previous targets will not be met and the only “achievement” was to set up more working parties and to say in the final statement signed by 122 government ministers, that "biological diversity is being destroyed by human activities at unprecedented rates".

Martin Kaiser, head of the Greenpeace delegation summed up the conference: "The UN biodiversity summit inches forward like a snail while animals and plants are being wiped out at great speed.” In fact, it was so meaningless that some organisations are reconsidering whether to attend in future. Joy Hyvarinen, international treaties adviser at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said: “After 10 years of these meetings there is no impact I can discern on slowing down the destruction of the natural world, but they have set up a wonderful bureaucracy for discussing it.”

Deforestation was largely ignored as an issue, under pressure from countries led by Brazil and Indonesia. Tropical forests are home to an estimated 50% of all life on the planet. These are the areas where tigers, orang-outang, Asian elephants, rhino, river dolphins, toucans – are at risk, not to mention thousands of other plants, animals and insects whose names we may not know, but which form crucial links in the web of life on the planet.

A major report on the economic impact of loss of biodiversity published to coincide with the conference, points out that a business as usual scenario will mean many eco-systems will be “damaged beyond repair”, and that by 2050:

· 11% of remaining wild areas would be lost, chiefly as a result of conversion for agriculture, the expansion of infrastructure, and climate change
· almost 40% of the land currently under low-impact forms of agriculture could be converted to intensive agricultural use, with further biodiversity losses
· 60% of coral reefs could be lost - even by 2030 - through fishing, pollution, diseases, invasive alien species, and coral bleaching due to climate change.

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity review assesses financial consequences in the hope of galvanising governments to act. It says that human activities are causing almost £40bn-worth of damage to land-based ecosystems each year. And without dramatic changes, all of the world’s fisheries will have collapsed within 50 years, leaving a billion people who rely on fish protein facing starvation.

During the conference, the US government helped to clarify the reasons for this global failure to act. They finally agreed to place the polar bear on their endangered species list but added that protecting it must not stand in the way of economic development in its habitat. So in the end it is all about putting profit first.

After the biodiversity marathon, Bonn is now hosting the latest round of UN-sponsored global climate change negotiations. These will no doubt have similar results. Global summits of capitalist politicians fronting for global business are a total waste of space. The planet and its people cannot afford to fritter away any more time. These empty UN talking shops need to be replaced with democratically-controlled, people’s global forums that will develop strategies to end the power of the global corporations to wreck the planet in pursuit of private profit. Then human activity could start to make a positive difference.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Obama and corporate America

Barack Obama will make history as the first African-American to challenge for the White House. But will the Democratic Party’s nominee for US president have an equally historic impact on the military and corporate power structures that are viewed by many as the country’s shadow government? Indeed, would he want to? All the indications say not.

Obama is riding a wave of attacks on the Bush presidency, for its invasion of Iraq, for its indifference to the fate of ordinary people (as shown in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina), for creating deeper and deeper inequalities and for taking America to the brink of presidential dictatorship by riding roughshod over constitutional rights.

But the Bush gang have always fronted for powerful corporate, financial and military interests and these are not leaving the scene anytime soon. Moreover, these elites are in some disarray as their world of free-market globalised capitalism falls apart around their feet. They will want an Obama presidency to come to their aid. On that score, they are likely to be disappointed simply because the White House doesn’t have that sort of power over the economy.

Danny Schecter, whose News Dissector website has played a major role in exposing the deceptions behind the selling of mortgages to people who could never really afford them (as well as the lies behind the invasion of Iraq), is not joining in the Obama-rides-to-the-rescue hullabaloo that is gripping the media on both sides of the Atlantic. Schechter cites the credit crisis as a reason for caution. At least one million families have lost their homes. Another two and half million are threatened. But the US political system has no plan for the crisis. In Schechter’s view not only do they have no “fix” – there may not be one because what’s involved is a structural crisis of American capitalism in an era of waning empire. “Many of the proposals being debated are tinkering with deeply flawed policies. They aim to bail the water out of the Titanic while it is sinking,” he adds.

Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter, who has just written a book about America’s Christian right, whose adherents will no doubt will be burning fiery crosses at the very thought of a black man becoming president, says bluntly: “The corporate state is our shadow government.” Candidates who promote corporate interests get corporate money. He writes: “Barack Obama's campaign message, filled with lofty promises of change and hope, is also filled with repeated reassurances to the corporate elite. Pick up a copy of Obama's book ‘The Audacity of Hope’. The subtext is clear. It is a steady reminder to corporate America, a reminder bolstered by Obama's voting record, that corporations would have nothing to fear from an Obama presidency.”

As a result, the same corporate donors, lobbyists, weapons manufacturers, nuclear power companies and Wall Street interests that give Hillary Clinton and Republican John McCain money, give Obama money. “They happen, in fact, to give Obama more. And the corporate state, which is carrying out a coup d'état in slow motion, believes it will prosper in Obama's hands. If not, he would not be a viable candidate.”

So both in Britain and America, the economic and financial elites are in a bind. Having captured the state, they find the state doesn’t command the power it once had as a consequence of the same corporate-driven globalisation process that produced a hands-off, deregulation approach. On the other side, the democratic credentials of the state are approaching vanishing point. The result is an increasingly dangerous power vacuum, into which Obama in America (and Cameron in Britain) is preparing to step. Beneath them, however, is a powder keg of discontent, disillusionment and hardship which they will be beyond their control. Then it won't be a case of "Yes we can", as the Obama slogan goes, but "No we can't".

Paul Feldman AWTW
communications editor

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Strike back against the banks

When banks refuse to lend, what is the point of a commercial bank? It’s not a fanciful question. Banks throughout Britain and other countries are on a lending strike because their balance sheets are shot to pieces. For example, tens of thousands of people whose mortgage deals are up for renegotiation cannot get a loan at any price and face losing their homes. Small businesses are in a similar state.

While the Bank of England has cut official interest rates, the banks themselves have taken no notice. In some cases, mortgage rates have actually risen as banks desperately try to rebuild their balance sheets. Bradford & Bingley is hanging on by a thread, while the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and HBOS are this week seeking no less than £16 billion more from shareholders in what is known as a rights issue to fill massive gaps on the asset side of their accounts. Even some analysts, including Evening Standard city editor Chris Blackhurst, have had it with the banks and his advice was blunt: “Investors should tell Sir Fred Goodwin [chief executive of RBS] and his colleagues where to go: no, we’re not going to take up the rights; we don’t want to own any more shares in your organisation.”

Again, what is the point of profit-making, capitalist bank in these circumstances? In fact, what is the point of the Bank of England itself and other regulatory bodies around the globe? Between them, they are responsible for a financial crash that will make 1929 look like a walk in the park. As a result, mass unemployment coupled with soaring inflation are looming.

How has this come to pass? Banks and building societes were transformed in the 1980s and 1990s to provide credit for the growth of transnational corporations and became subject to the global financial system. Where once they had to restrict lending to cover for eventualities like savers wanting their money out, banks were given the green light to print money under what is termed fractional banking. Today, British banks are required to keep only the smallest fraction – just above 0% in fact – of their deposits as reserves. Consequently, the amount of money in circulation has soared way beyond the value of goods this money can possibly buy and inflation – or the depreciation of paper money – is taking off.

No wonder those who know about all this (and have loads of money) are getting into commodities like oil, grain and, of course, gold. This morning, gold was trading at $895 dollars an ounce, above its all time high of $850 in 1980 when inflation was in double figures. As for the banks’ actual assets – which are also used to lend out money against - these are clearly worth much less than their nominal value.

Large swathes of banking “assets” are packaged-up debts that have been bought and sold as speculation. When the financial merry-go-round stopped abruptly last year it was because bankers left holding the debt parcels suddenly faced the fact that the “assets” they were supposed to represent – namely unsecured mortgages handed out like confetti in the US – were pretty worthless as the borrowers had defaulted. The credit-crunch kicked in.

Now the rest of us are supposed to pay the price for the bankers’ folly and greed. Of course, we need a banking system of some sorts but we don’t need one that is based on gambling with other people’s money. Or one that, when times get tough, refuses to help out ordinary people burdened down by debt or who were given mortgages up to seven or eight times their salary so that banks could boost their profits and bonuses. This kind of banking is entirely parasitical and we need it like a hole in the head. As part of a wider economic reorganisation along not-for-profit, co-operatively lines there is an urgent need to develop a new banking system, one that is owned mutually and whose primary aim is to serve savers and depositors, and not shareholders.

Paul Feldman
AWTW communications editor

Monday, June 02, 2008

A time for boldness

The apparent recovery of Tory fortunes as New Labour’s poll popularity plunges offers much food for thought. Support for New Labour is now at its lowest level since polling began in 1943. There are those who, fixated on the mood-swings expressed through parliamentary politics, see these trends as indicators of a general shift to the right.

But are the rising fortunes of Cameron really an indicator of such a mass enthusiasm for the right? Well, actually, no. They have a lot more to do with disaffection with New Labour than a born-again faith in the Conservative Party. Cameron’s image as the nice guy of Tory politics is about as wafer thin as that of Blair’s persona as a man of the people back in the 1990s, when he was dubbed Bambi. The fact is that the Conservative Party’s new image (and by implication, its popularity) is no deeper than the advertising for breakfast cereals.

Media experts like Matt Beaumont, quoted in The Sunday Telegraph’s analysis of the rebranding of Tory politics, are acutely aware of this: “The huge Conservative lead in the opinion polls suggests they are doing something right, though I suspect this has more to do with public ennui after a decade of Labour, combined with distaste for Gordon Brown.”

The “power-couple” behind Cameron’s throne are Steve Hilton and Rachel Whetstone, advertising experts whose relationship to Cameron is comparable to that of Peter Mandelson’s and Alistair Campbell’s with Blair and New Labour. Media mogul Maurice Saatchi, who helped Margaret Thatcher come to power, sees Hilton as his heir. He became Cameron’s director of strategy in December 2005 at a salary of between £180,000 to £276,000.

Hilton’s political philosophy (if it can be graced with that name) is of a socially responsible capitalism. His book, Good Business, ends with a paraphrase of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto: “Capitalists and anti-capitalists of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your guilt”. The new Tory outlook – which is essentially a freshened-up version of New Labour's - crafted by Hilton focuses especially on a green agenda, and indeed Conservatives have taken this seriously. Boris Johnson claims to oppose the third runway at Heathrow and there were some leading Tories on Saturday’s march against airport expansion. Zac Goldsmith, the archetypal Tory son of billionaire James Goldsmith, and editor of The Ecologist magazine, was selected as the party’s candidate for Richmond Park in March 2007.

But Hilton and others’ notion of a socially-responsible form of globalised capital is about as realistic as the Camerons leaving their Notting Hill home and moving into a council flat. And of course, these cuddly new Tories have no solutions to the problems, which their media gurus are able to identify, even while they pander to the many anxieties of the middle classes and the sections of the working class abandoned by New Labour

Just like Brown, Cameron and his ilk stand helpless in the face of the massive economic crisis now ripping through the advanced capitalist countries. The near-collapse of Bradford & Bingley today is only a taste of what is to come. A quarter of a million UK homeowners are already in negative equity with a million forecast by the end of 2009. Rising mortgage, fuel and food costs are eating into incomes and fuelling the economic recession as retail sales slow.

We are witnessing an historic disenfranchisement of wide swathes of the population who cannot relate either to the new smooth Tory Party or to Brown’s New Labour and who feel they have no power to influence events. This is accompanied by a deepening social and economic malaise for which there are no conventional answers. Behind Cameron’s superficial Tories stand sinister forces within the state who are preparing to intervene if and when things get out of hand. Seeking solutions solely at the level of parliamentary politics and parties is a futile and doomed activity. The circumstances call, above all, for boldness in advocating a revolutionary, new direction for society to sweep both New Labour and the Tories aside.

Corinna Lotz
AWTW secretary