Friday, October 30, 2009

The future of the CWU is at stake

Billy Hayes, the general secretary of the Communication Worker Union (CWU), denies saying that his organisation was in a stronger position than the miners were at the start of their strike 25 years ago. Nevertheless, the miners’ historic, year-long struggle for jobs is a suitable reference point for postal workers.

The difficulty the CWU has in reaching an agreement with Royal Mail management has echoes of the challenge that the National Union of Miners (NUM) and Arthur Scargill faced. Eventually, of course, the NUM returned without an agreement with the state-owned National Coal Board (NCB) and pit closures followed soon afterwards.

No agreement was possible because the state, directed by the Thatcher Tory government, was determined to shut pits that were deemed “uneconomic”, mines that did not make a profit. A quarter of a century later, the state-owned Royal Mail, directed by the New Labour government, is adopting a similar standpoint.

Commercial profitability is what drives Royal Mail management. “Modernisation” in their terms means the destruction of tens of thousands of jobs. By all accounts, the draft agreements have been so vague that the CWU executive has felt unable to sign on the dotted line and call off the strikes, whatever the recommendation of the negotiators led by assistant general secretary Dave Ward.

Tens of thousands of jobs have already gone in recent years with the CWU doing little about it. Signing up to the management’s agenda this time could well sound the death knell of the union as a fighting force because membership could be halved within a short time.

So if the CWU leaders are serious they have no time to lose in mobilising against the management AND New Labour. It is simply dishonest for them to call on business secretary Lord Mandelson to intervene. Mandelson has – and it’s on the side of the management.

New Labour is the main enemy. This government imposed capitalist, profit-making criteria on the Royal Mail, which is why thousands of post offices have closed and the delivery service has deteriorated as a result of cost-cutting measures. It has long ceased being a public service in the accepted sense of the word.

New Labour is ready to return with plans to part-privatise the Royal Mail, which it has shelved and not abandoned (if they lose the election, the Tories will carry on where Mandelson left off). The massive state financial deficit from bailing out the banks makes a sell-off a racing certainty.

One of the key lessons of the miners’ strike is that no single group of trade unionists on their own can defeat the government and the state, which in this case includes the employers and the anti-union laws that serve to weaken effective industrial action (the Tories are planning to impose new laws on top of those retained by New Labour).

The future of the CWU is at stake and union leaders must say so loud and clear. They need to mobilise the membership in indefinite strike action and defy the anti-union laws to picket out the strike-breaking force being recruited by Royal Mail.

In place of redundancies, the CWU should demand job sharing at no loss of pay to advance the right to work in a period of mass unemployment. In place of overpaid Royal Mail management, there is a case for a joint worker-consumer control of the service.

Making the post a genuine public service will require a government that is not in the grip of big business and the banks, as all the major parties are. That’s a tall order but the CWU, by being decisive and rejecting naked commercialism, could help open a discussion about achieving a real political change.

If the union leaders are serious about winning this fight, they need to show it or step aside for those who are committed to saving every job.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Climate change a systemic crisis

On land and sea the impacts of climate change intensify. But the UN’s leading climate change official, Yves de Boer, has admitted that the Copenhagen summit will not deliver a binding treaty to follow on from Kyoto.

Host nation Denmark is already preparing a compromise text to be introduced if all else fails; Plan B will contain pious words and promises of further talks but no commitment to emissions reductions.

We saw this failure in microcosm this week when it emerged that the most crucial clause has been dropped from the draft REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries) agreement, one of the documents on the table at Copenhagen.

The clause would stop countries from felling ancient forests and replacing them with palm oil plantations, while still claiming subsidies for carbon emissions reductions. African governments objected – they want the right to do what South East Asia and South America are already doing – exploiting virgin forest for massive profit.

And it emerged that it was British officials who pushed for the deal to go ahead without this crucial caveat.

Allowing more rain forest destruction, then subsidising environmentally damaging palm oil monoculture – that’s capitalist business as usual. As Simon Counsell, of the Rainforest Foundation, said: "If this is not changed, the agreement will be part of the problem, not part of the solution.”

Deforestation currently contributes 20% of carbon emissions, more than global transport. Without a reduction in felling, it will be impossible to achieve the reductions needed to halt climate change.

Meanwhile, a new assessment of the world’s “blue forests” shows they too are suffering a dramatic deterioration.

Satellite monitoring over 25 years shows that the rise in water surface temperature in the world’s large marine ecosystems (LME’s – the coastal waters adjacent to continents) is 2-3 times higher than the estimates the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was working with.

A report presented to the International Waters Conference meeting in Australia, said 70% of global fish stocks within LMEs are overexploited. This is reducing the availability of fish for food, and is especially critical off the coasts of Africa, Asia and Latin America, where fish is a major protein source.

An unprecedented volume of nitrogen pollution is causing a greater frequency and extent of harmful algal blooms, oxygen depletion events and dead zones. The nitrogen build-up comes from artificial fertilizer washed into the sea.

And the same nitrates are partly responsible for another phenomenon documented by the conference organisers.

The Global Environment Facility reports that about 2 billion hectares of land globally – almost a quarter of all the landscape used by humans – is badly degraded. Reduced soil fertility, the loss of forest cover, and the erosion of prairies, is reducing the global potential to grow food and maintain ecosystems.

About two-thirds of agricultural land has been degraded to some extent during the last 50 years, and up to 40% of the world’s agricultural land is seriously degraded.

Land, sea and forest – all threatened with reckless destruction. This can only be understood as a systemic problem with its root cause the drive for profit at any cost.

A systemic problem needs a systemic answer. We need to move into a new era of stewardship and husbandry – concepts alien to capitalism. Only a not-for-profit future can save the forests – both blue and green.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Good bank, bad bank? Peoples bank!

The European Union (EU) is expected today to approve plans for the Northern Rock bank to be split in two – so-called “good” and “bad” banks. The Rock has been state-owned since the spring of 2008.

This was an early part of New Labour’s attempts to prevent a complete meltdown after customers queued to withdraw their deposits in 2007 when the default rate on sub-prime mortgages in the United States triggered the global credit collapse.

The idea is that the “good” or profitable business will be sold back to the private sector, whilst the “bad” part containing the “toxic” non-performing loans, including the 125% mortgages pressed onto people desperate for housing at any cost, will be retained in the public sector, to be serviced from taxation.

Once EU approval is in place, the principle is likely to be extended to the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds. Supporters of the plan – and there are many from all the main parties – are keen to see wider competition. They want to open the field up to new entrants such as Tesco, Virgin and a range of foreign banks like National Australia Bank – already owner of the Clydesdale and Yorkshire.

The scheme has its roots in the 1930s’ rescue in the United States of a cascade of failing banks. Today’s proponents point to its success in Sweden after the country went through a property market collapse in 1991 which threatened the financial system.

But they choose to ignore the scale of today’s crisis which has engulfed the world’s much more highly-interconnected financial system so critical to the worldwide production and trading activities that underpin the globalised corporations.

The intertwined crises of collapsing consumer demand, shrinking global trade, declining manufacturing and inactive credit markets spell the end of the post-war era of a spiralling growth of commodity production fuelled by cheap labour and mountains of debt.

Plans to restore the financial system to profitability are necessary but not sufficient to restore the capitalist economy to the growth it so badly depends upon for survival.

Throughout its three and a half centuries, the capitalist system has alternated between periods of competitive growth fuelled by the credit that relied on the impossible dreams of ever-increasing profit and the crashes that followed when the interest payments ceased. As the dust clears it reveals the massive overcapacity that must be eliminated before a renewed period of growth can begin. That is the stage of the crisis that we are in now.

The looming impact of the changing climate provides the measure of the damage inflicted on the planet by half a century of profit-motivated credit-fuelled growth. The system of production for profit must be stopped, terminated, replaced. Its replacement can be democratically-determined sustainable production by communities working co-operatively to satisfy their needs and provide opportunities to fulfil individual and collective potential.

This new era will need a system of accounting for exchange and a means of measuring and redistributing the value generated in production to fund development. It won’t need a vast edifice of speculation. Stock and foreign exchange markets can be closed, gambling in the derivatives casino ended.

With democratic control over the finance system, decisions can be made about which debts can be cancelled and which renegotiated. The “good” and “bad” capitalist banks choice is no choice at all. In their place we want genuine people’s banks that protect savings and extend social investment.

It’ll need a social revolution to make these changes, but what’s the alternative?

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The EU, Blair and a sense of disgust

Amid all the speculation about Tony Blair seeking to become the first president of Europe, any questions about democracy are put to one side. No wonder the polls show a growing contempt for politicians.

When the Czech Republic is finally browbeaten into signing the Lisbon Treaty, the carve-up of jobs will begin. There is absolutely no suggestion of elections for any of the posts that will the follow the treaty’s implementation.

Instead, candidates will be appointed to jobs like the president of the European Council or put in charge in of foreign policy after the usual horse-trading that goes on between member states. This is yet one more example of the undemocratic nature of the European Union project in particular and the general tendency towards bureaucratic forms of political rule.

Few countries were allowed a vote on the Lisbon Treaty itself and where they were, as in Ireland, voters were in fact compelled to vote twice until they came up with a “Yes”. Yet the treaty imposes sweeping changes to the way the EU is run and deepens the role of the market in the economies of member countries.

For example, public services will be subject under article 16 to new “economic and financial conditions”, meaning that services like health care and education, would be subject to the rules of competition. This will inevitably result in further privatisation.

The European Council and Commission is given 100 new powers across a wide range of policy areas and the new voting arrangements will reduce the voice of the smaller of the 27 nations. National parliaments are given minimal oversight powers but no real clout in relation to decisions taken in Brussels.

Increasingly, the EU is seen as a counterweight to the US and China when it comes to fighting for a share of world markets in a period of economic crisis. The EU, for example, is resisting proposals for a new climate change treaty so as not to be put at a disadvantage against rival trading blocs.

The spectacle of Blair being manoeuvred into position to become president only feeds the sense of disgust with the whole business and encourages an anti-European xenophobia that benefits the Tories and the far right. They are able to play the nationalist card and stoke up hostility to anything “foreign” or non-British. New Labour’s response is yet more undemocratic politics and a contrived pro-Europe attitude which is everything to do with promoting big business (and their own careers) and nothing to do with ordinary working people’s interests.

As we mark 20 years since the 1989 revolutions that swept Eastern Europe, it is the appropriate moment to consider how we renew and take that movement forward. Countries like the Czech Republic won and then quickly lost their new political freedoms to the EU while in Britain, the old political system has decayed beyond recognition.

The perspective has to be one of extending democracy in new ways across the whole of Europe to prevent the right-wing and nationalists seizing the initiative, as they threaten to do. A new democracy cannot be built, however, on the foundations of an old capitalist system but needs to be brought together with a transfer of economic, financial and political state power to the disenfranchised majority in every country. That has to be our internationalist perspective.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Monday, October 26, 2009

We are all 'terrorists' now

As politicians of all shades flail about in the wake of the financial and economic crisis, the growth of the neo-fascist British National Party and Parliament’s loss of authority, secret units of police are carrying out their time-honoured function – to spy on anyone who does not fit into (their idea of) the status quo.

An investigation by a team of Guardian journalists reveals that no fewer than three secret units run by the totally unaccountable Association of Police Officers (Acpo) are being funded to the tune of £9m by the Home Office. Their function is to gather intelligence, operate a chain of databases, and warn those who might be “on the receiving end” of protests. (The £9m is, of course, in addition to the hundreds of millions spent on the operations of the state intelligence agencies, MI5 and MI6.)

Following the climate camp protests around the Drax power station in Yorkshire in 2006, police and government officials invented a new term – “domestic terrorism”. This categorisation was first used when New Labour and the police characterised animal rights campaigners as “terrorists” between 2001-2004. But now the term, which is not legally defined, is used as a blanket justification for gathering and holding details and photographs of individual protesters and activists on massive police databases. According to the investigation:

• The National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU) collects and processes information collected by police forces around England and Wales. It is fed intelligence by surveillance units such as Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT) and Evidence Gatherers.
• The nationwide system of automatic number plate recognition (ANPR), which can place a marker against a car, is used by “interceptor teams” to monitor attendance at protests and stop individuals.
• “Spotter cards” are used by the CO11 Public Order Intelligence Unit. Comedian and campaigner Mark Thomas discovered his face on one accidentally dropped at a recent Docklands arms fair.
• The National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit (Nectu) is used to keep files on groups and share information with big business. Initially set up in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire to curb animal rights’ activists, it works with police forces and companies
• The National Domestic Terrorism Team, set up in 2005, liaises between detectives and police forces.

As Thomas points out, “the very phrase ‘domestic extremist’ defines protesters in the eyes of the police as the problem, the enemy.” And, that “any targeting and treatment of demonstrators (at the G20 for example) that creates a ‘chilling effect’ – deterring those who may wish to exercise their right to protest – is profoundly undemocratic.”

The first comprehensive history of Britain’s domestic intelligence service MI5, just published, The Defence of the Realm, documents how the secret forces of the state have always made those fighting for basic rights a target for surveillance, and often arrest and detention. Those who lead such movements, including political organisations and active trade unionists, are always the first in line.

A quarter of a century ago, Prime Minister Thatcher denounced the National Union of Mineworkers and its leaders as “the enemy within”. The Tory government of the day unleashed all its power to destroy a single trade union. There is no doubt that the ruling classes are still haunted by that era.

Only today, it is not a Tory government but New Labour which is funding secret activities by the police. Not that whatever government comes to power next spring is likely to disband any of these new police units – on the contrary. This state is tooling up for a period of massive social unrest.

Mark Thomas concludes: “This is exactly the time to worry.” Too right. But not only to worry, we would add, but to work for the deconstruction of the existing state and its intelligence agencies.

Corinna Lotz
AWTW secretary

Friday, October 23, 2009

The challenge facing postal workers

Just how right postal workers are to fight for their jobs is borne out by today’s figures showing that the British economy, far from “recovering”, remains critically ill on life support. The sixth successive quarterly fall in output is the longest continuous decline since records began in 1955.

The estimates mean the depth of the current slump in output is close to the 6% fall seen between 1979 and 1981. None of the measures adopted by the state, including virtually zero interest rates and pumping £175 billion into the financial system is having a significant impact. The banks have simply taken the money and used it to finance another bout of speculation.

To lose your job in this situation is tantamount to joining poverty street. You can’t survive on dole payments and if you’ve got a mortgage, there is no help with housing costs either. There are few decently-paid jobs out there and mail workers would be crazy to accept management-imposed “efficiency” changes at their expense.

Their solid strikes this week show Royal Mail workers don’t accept that they should sacrifice their livelihoods on the altar of cost-cutting. Some 60,000 jobs have already gone in the last few years and the burden on those remaining is already intolerable.

This has drawn the accusation from management and New Labour that mail workers are standing in the way of “modernisation”. But what is this “modernisation” that Lord Mandelson and others are so fond of? Mandelson, of course, was the architect of “modernising” the Labour Party. This proved to be a cover for the actual destruction of what had gone before and its replacement with something quite different.

New Labour is not a “modernised” version of its predecessor. Instead, it is the political executive of the business and financial classes. This explains Mandelson’s vehement attacks on postal workers and the government’s sabotaging of a compromise deal with the Communication Workers’ Union.

The “modernisation” of Royal Mail in the same way is not intended to create a better place to work or to improve the service to the public. Instead, it is aimed at making it profitable so that the service can be privatised – by whichever party wins the next general election.

Placing the postal strikes in the context of the deepening economic crisis, it is important to support mail workers in developing a strategy that challenges the capitalist mantra of cost accounting and efficiency savings that inevitably lead to job losses and more intense exploitation for those left. The strategy would focus on an alternative, not-for-profit approach. For example, where new technology is applied, the results could include a shorter working week at the same levels of pay. It would expose the fact that in class society, the interests of workers and employers can never be identical.

We have to study alternatives to the capitalist approach, whereby cost reduction is always carried out to the disadvantage of the workforce. In any case, as we have seen, the profit-based approach leads inevitably to an over-reliance on credit and debt and thence to an uncontrollable crisis such as the one we are in now.

Bringing about change along these lines requires imagination and a capacity to look beyond the immediate struggle to protect jobs and livelihoods. By rejecting government-orchestrated intimidation and pursuing their strikes, postal workers are creating the conditions for doing just that.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Emissions of hypocrisy on the increase

Sonorous Presbyterian tones rumble through the room: “We have fewer than fifty days to save our planet from catastrophe.” Gordon Brown is preaching to the Major Economies Forum. Yet Brown and his government stand accused of being amongst the world’s greatest climate change hypocrites.

Hypocrisy no. 1
The Treasury has gone to court to defend the right of the state-owned RBS bank to finance companies involved in enterprises that pollute the planet, add to emissions and seize land from indigenous people.

Campaigners from Platform, the World Development Movement and People & Planet vowed to appeal after failing to convince a High Court judge to order a judicial review of the Treasury’s position on RBS investments. In particular they highlight Vedanta, which is mining bauxite on sacred land in Orissa in India. A scathing report from the government’s own business department accuses Vedanta of disrespecting the rights of indigenous people.

The Treasury hired a high-price QC to defend its position that it would be wrong to consider climate change and human rights when it evaluates the "commercial" interests of state-owned bank.

Hypocrisy no. 2
The government has been exaggerating its claims of reductions in CO2 emissions, according to the UK Statistics Authority. Sir Michael Scholar, the authority’s chair, has accused the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) of producing “unsatisfactory data”.

Scholar wrote to Tim Yeo, chairman of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, saying that a statistical bulletin released by the DECC in February “fell short” of the code of practice for government statistics.

The government claims CO2 emissions have fallen by 12.8% compared to 1990 levels. But almost a third of that is made up of carbon credits purchased by polluters in the EU trading scheme and do not represent actual cuts. The real reduction is more like 8.5%.

Scholar told the Commons committee: "In this case, the figures mentioned are, in our view, likely to be used by non-expert observers to judge progress in reducing CO2 emissions within the UK. We regard the quoted figures, and particularly the percentage change, as unsatisfactory in the context of that use."

Hypocrisy no. 3
The government own Climate Change Committee suggests that only the recession, resulting in less energy use by industry, can save New Labour from failing to meet targets. From 2003 to 2007 greenhouse gas emissions were falling at less than 1% each year, well below the target.

The Committee also said that much of the reduction in recent years has been in non-CO2 gases. CO2 emissions in the period 2003-07 averaged a 0.6% annual reduction. Where CO2 emissions have fallen, the extent to which this has been through implementation of measures to improve energy or carbon efficiency is very limited. Broadly speaking, it has been as a result of carbon offsetting.

Of course when it comes to hypocrisy, Brown is not alone in advance of the Copenhagen climate change summit in December. His EU colleagues talk big numbers but in reality, Germany, Italy and Poland have no intention of acting because they put achieving a return to capitalist economic growth before everything else.

And you could argue that the world’s number one hypocrite is China. If it was truly “the People’s Republic”, they would be acting now to prevent the impact of climate change on the Chinese people. As it is, Beijing is playing diplomatic games with the major economies over carbon emissions. Meanwhile, China is engaged in the large-scale buying up of resources in Africa and the Middle East with absolutely no concern for the environment.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

More shocks on the way

The disarray – and fear – in ruling class circles over the future prospects for the financial system is growing apace. Far from rescuing the banks, unprecedented levels of state intervention have, according to Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, and others, reinforced existing weaknesses.

King has put himself at odds with the New Labour government, which has poured billions of pounds of taxpayers’ cash down the throats of the banks to no avail. Not only have they failed to resume previous levels of lending, bankers are paying themselves huge sums in bonuses, which for 2009 are up 50% on last year.

So King told Scottish business organisations last night: “The sheer scale of support to the banking sector is breathtaking. In the UK… it is not far short of a trillion (that is, one thousand billion) pounds, close to two-thirds of the annual output of the entire economy. To paraphrase a great wartime leader, never in the field of financial endeavour has so much money been owed by so few to so many. And, one might add, so far with little real reform.”

He went on: “It is hard to see how the existence of institutions that are ‘too important to fail’ is consistent with their being in the private sector.” King has a point, of course. In effect he is saying that the private sector can only function through the capitalist state and that this is not a genuine kind of private enterprise capitalism. He is right there!

Just over two years ago the financial system went critical, highlighted by the panic withdrawal of funds by Northern Rock’s depositors. The combination of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and now the longest recession since the Second World War was triggered by a rising rate of defaults on sub-prime mortgages in the US, the weakest point in a worldwide explosion of credit secured against overpriced property.

The world’s governments and central banks were forced into drastic action. They’ve taken some bankrupt institutions into public ownership, provided guarantees against loss for others, and cast trillions into the credit markets. They’ve reduced interest rates to historic lows, effectively entering negative territory. And they’ve created new money to inflate their own balance sheets.

In a wide-ranging comment on King’s speech, Martin Wolf, the Financial Times’ senior columnist accurately assessed the effect of this intervention, and all the half-hearted attempts at regulation. He concludes: “Trying to make financial systems safer has made them more perilous. Today, as a result, neither market discipline nor regulation is effective. There is a danger, therefore, that this rescue will lead to still greater risk-taking and an even worse crisis at some point in the not too distant future.”

King is proposing something different to regulation however. It puts him at odds with the rest of the establishment. His proposal for a separation of traditional banking from investment, high-risk activities is an echo of the American Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. This was a rapid reaction to the banking crisis that swept America after the 1929 stock market crash, in which investment banks played a key role. Glass-Steagall’s restrictions were steadily eroded in the 1980s to allow globalisation to proceed and the law was finally abandoned by the US in 1999.

Both King’s proposals for a return to the pre-globalisation era and Wolf’s assessment show that the crisis is far from over. More shocks are on the way. For example, soaring stock market prices contain little of substance and are essentially a new bubble just waiting to burst while house prices remain artificially high.

The IMF is warning that the global recession is having an adverse effect on commercial property prices and defaults are soaring. Increasing unemployment is also accelerating the rate of repossessions in America and Britain. The conditions for a second wave of the global financial crisis are already present. It wouldn’t take much to touch it off.

Watch this space.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Taking inspiration from 1989

The amazing sequence of events that marked the year 1989 which culminated in the tearing down of the Berlin Wall on November 8 continues to stimulate debate in its 20th anniversary year.

From the moment in March when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev told the Hungarian leader, Karoly Grosz, that the Brezhnev doctrine of military intervention was now dead, to the rapid and violent downfall of Romanian dictator Ceausescu in December, the speed of events was breathtaking.

Much less well-known is how that historic moment was only made possible by a decision of the Hungarian Communist Party. Early in October it razed down the barbed wire fence that separated Hungary from Austria and refugees from the German Democratic Republic poured through. On October 20, the now renamed Hungarian Socialist Party also agreed to amend its constitution to end its own domination and introduce a multiparty political system.

The meaning and outcome of that year still provokes debate, but what stands out above all is that for the first time since the revolutionary period around 1917, millions of people actually made history. One documentary film maker, has described the mass movements of twenty years ago as a “miracle”.

And indeed, there still is a truly triumphant, awe-inspiring quality to the huge demonstrations and flows of ordinary people in so many countries. Not only were the numbers involved unprecedented, but so was the way momentum built up from country to country. The disenfranchised were suddenly transformed into the empowered, it’s been said of the movement that within a few months led to the tearing down of the Wall. This was truly people’s power in action.

Since that time, the people who experienced the downfall of decades-old Stalinist regimes have seen monumental changes, for better and for worse. Entire countries like the Soviet Union have been broken up and new ones formed. Old hierarchies have vanished. And, last but not least, a new and mostly brutal capitalist economic order has replaced the state-dominated bureaucratic systems which fossilised leaders and their opposite numbers in the West liked to describe as “socialist”.

Gorbachev, the man who gave the greatest impulse to the break-up of the Stalinist bureaucracies in the Soviet Union and east Europe, did not set out to destroy the “socialised” aspects of his country – nor indeed its East European satellites. He simply believed that “we [the Soviet leadership] had no right to interfere in the affairs of our ‘satellites’, to defend and preserve some and punish and ‘excommunicate’ others without reckoning with the people’s will... Those who still blame Gorbachev,” he has written in his memoirs, “are in effect, lacking in respect for their own people, who have gained freedom and made use of it as best they could”.

As one writer has noted in relation to the courage of those who gathered in Leipzig 20 years ago, under the searchlights and cameras of the brutal Stasi secret police, tearing down the curtain was not just the work of movements and ideas; it happened because “courageous men and women resisted apathy and fear”.

The world is undoubtedly deeply changed today. It appears to many that the revolutionary movements of that kind are truly “last century” and could never happen again. But what characterised every single one of these people’s uprisings was that they were largely unforeseen and no one could anticipate either their speed or their outcome.

We live in a world transformed, not only by the political revolutions of 1989, but also by an ongoing communications revolution combined with unemployment and homelessness as economic meltdown continues. The ravages of global warming are present and imminent.

The year 1989 was a year of political, rather than social, revolution. It freed people from the rule of repressive Stalinist bureaucracies. The fact that the outcome – capitalism – did not fulfil the aspirations of those who made the change possible is no one’s fault. It leaves the challenge of making a new step forward to today’s generations.

The need for ending capitalism is greater than ever. What is needed, then as now, is the creation of organisations, networks and movements with the vision and courage to go where no one has gone before in making the revolution of the 21st century.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
20 October 2009

Monday, October 19, 2009

Johnson's hypocrisy over BNP

When Alan Johnson, the home secretary, expresses outrage at the decision of the BBC to invite the neo-fascist British National Party on to its Question Time programme this week, you know something is not quite right. This is a stench of opportunist hypocrisy here that is overpowering.

Johnson condemned the BBC for giving the party a platform it doesn't deserve. "They are a white-supremacist party," he said. "They are an illegally constituted party. They should be confronted in argument. I've been doing that all my life. But I won't appear on this platform with the BNP, because you're talking about bringing them in, to be a legitimate political party, to sit on this platform."

Firstly, if anyone should come under fire it is Johnson’s own New Labour and not the BBC. The programme could not have gone ahead if Gordon Brown had, as leader of his party, decided that New Labour would hold to its position of not sharing a platform with the BNP. Instead, Jack Straw, justice secretary, is to appear with BNP leader Nick Griffin. Johnson neatly sidesteps that one, perhaps with one eye on a bid to take over from Brown sooner rather than later.

Secondly, Johnson is no position to lecture the BNP, as he and the government have pursued policies that have played right into its hands. The constant demonization of asylum seekers, through policies that have included vouchers, the denial of emergency housing and medical treatment, has fed the prejudices of the right-wing press and the BNP.

Only last month, Johnson himself expressed his “delight” at the “swift and decisive” action by French riot police against mainly Afghan refugees living in a make-shift camp near Calais. What Johnson denoted a “dignified success” was a squalid business, where distressed teenagers were confronted by uniformed thugs, as video reports like the one by Jason Parkinson show.

Of course, it’s alright to send thousands of troops to invade Afghanistan. When a few hundred people turn up seeking asylum and refuge from that poor, war-ravaged, corrupt country, they are treated as if they were a major threat to “our way of life”.

The tone was set early on in the history of New Labour. David Blunkett, a former home secretary, claimed in 2002 that asylum seekers were “swamping some British schools” and that there was a case for educating them separately. He won the backing of the then prime minister Tony Blair – and no doubt of the BNP too!

Johnson claims that the BNP is not a “legitimate party” and should be denied access to the BBC on that basis alone. Agreeing to that point of view, however, would allow the political establishment and the state to decide who and who is not “legitimate”. Once you go down that road, anti-capitalist groups and parties could, for example, at some stage also be designated beyond the pale.

It is actually the break-up of “legitimate” parliamentary politics, in particular the transformation of New Labour into an openly capitalist party, that has fuelled the growth of the BNP’s influence and support. As the expenses scandal demonstrates, this process is continuing apace, with or without the BNP appearing on Question Time.

The political establishment has no answers to the destabilisation produced by the coincidence of the demise of traditional politics with a profound economic crisis. The democracy they allegedly promote is hollowed out and is now under open attack from the extreme right-wing. You can only counter that threat by extending and renewing democracy in new ways, setting out to transfer actual power at the level of the state into the hands of ordinary people. That’s the best way to fight the BNP.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Friday, October 16, 2009

Plot to destroy postal union

New Labour and Royal Mail management have hatched a thinly-disguised plot to destroy the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) if postal workers go ahead with their strikes next week over jobs and pay. That’s the clear message from the leaked document obtained by BBC’s Newsnight.

Behind the strategy is business secretary Lord Mandelson, who more and more seems in charge of the government. Gordon Brown is beholden to Mandelson after he blocked attempts to remove him as prime minister earlier this year. Mandelson has described CWU’s strike plans as “suicidal” and has come out against intervention by the arbitration service ACAS.

Mandelson withdrew plans to for a partial sell-off of Royal Mail because potential buyers signalled that the service needed “modernising” first. Since then, management has unilaterally introduced new working practices, leading to a series of localised strikes by postal workers.

Next week’s two days of national strike action (22 and 23 October) have been called in a bid to force Royal Mail to reach an agreement with the union on a way forward. But the leaked document shows that management and the government are not interested in a compromise but want to fatally weaken the CWU to prepare the state-owned service for privatisation.

The Royal Mail document marked “in strictest confidence” talks of “shareholder support” for the hard-line position - the government is the company’s only shareholder. Dated 24 September, the secret plan suggests that Royal Mail will effectively “de-recognise” the CWU by denying union reps facilities to carry out their activities.

The document also raises the possibility of managers delivering the mail and scab labour also being recruited. The PowerPoint presentation, obtained by BBC's Newsnight has a section marked “objectives” which states that “through the dispute” Royal Mail will “deliver the necessary 2009 changes with or without union engagement”. It refers to strikes as an "enabler" of its aims, saying "strikes make things worse".

Billy Hayes, general secretary of the CWU, told the BBC: "There is no question the document is genuine, what's more worrying is that Peter Mandelson seemed to know the document quite well. It does seem like an organised attempt to sideline the union. What we need is an agreement to modernise the company with the consent of the workforce. We want an agreement and we want to negotiate with good faith."

This is clearly not on the agenda, however. The government and management intend to break the union’s resistance and carry through their own programme of rationalisation and redundancies to add to the 63,000 workers already cut from the payroll over the last few years.

Right-wing papers like the Daily Mail are already salivating about the prospects of a re-run of the miners’ strike of 1984-8, when the Tories deployed the state to batter the union and impose pit closures. And yet the CWU inexplicably continues to fund New Labour to the tune of £1 million a year and express surprise at Mandelson’s position.

The argument has been that funding buys “influence” with the government and that the Tories could be much worse. Well, it seems more likely money down the drain when you consider Mandelson’s position and it’s hard to see the Tories planning anything harsher than the current government.

New Labour wants to demonstrate to big business and the middle-class electorate that it can be “tough” with the unions and workers. That’s why the government also intends to postpone the introduction of rights for temporary workers until 2011 required under European Union law.

The CWU is facing a fight to the finish with the government and management and it better get ready for this. Postal workers will need the active support in industrial action of other trade unionists, especially those in the public sector facing imminent pay cuts and job losses, if they are to defeat the New Labour government.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Jobless youth turn to the army

You see them on trains in North Yorkshire, fresh-faced teenagers struggling with massive kit-bags. Only they are not off to play football or cricket. They are 16-year-olds attached to army training camps in the area, who in a year or two might end up dead or wounded in Afghanistan.

As youth unemployment has soared – almost a million young people are without work in this country – so has army recruitment, on both sides of the Atlantic. In Obama’s America, the armed forces have reached their target numbers for the first time since conscription ended in 1973. Wall Street may be booming but more than one in 10 on Main Street are unemployed and the army is seen as a “job”, providing an income and training.

In Britain, a highly sophisticated marketing campaign has seen numbers asking to join the army soar by 25% in a year despite the rising death toll in Afghanistan, stories about poor equipment and continuing reports about bullying at training schools. With few job openings for young men in particular, it is not hard to see why the promise of learning new skills and the lure of camaraderie should be a pull. So they sign up for 12 years and serve a minimum of four.

Out of the £95 million spent by the army recruiting group deployed in ten regions across Britain, over a quarter goes on marketing campaigns. And increasingly the money is lapped up by the private sector for putting together things like Internet-based packages targeted at young men who spend hours gaming online.

The army’s current recruitment platform was put together by the award-winning interactive marketing company AKQA — best know for its Nike ads as well as other campaigns. A TV and radio campaign drew people to the website when they could play an interactive game, Start Thinking Soldier. The aim was to get young people to return again and again. And it worked. The site received more than a million visits, collecting 250,000 profiles

Many web visitors were invited to a series of events around the country, including the Wakestock festival in Wales and a custom car show in Edinburgh. Once there, visitors could drive a virtual tank and run with full kit. Almost half of the 9,500 who took part opted to receive further information, which in marketing terms is considered exceptionally high.

The moral of this story is twofold. One is that the state never tires of having to develop its message. Sign up to die for Queen and Country has gone out of the window in favour of “introducing democracy” to countries and “nation building”. The result is the same, of course. The ruling classes play war games at the expense of the poor bloody infantry who die on a foreign field not really understanding what they were doing there in the first place.

The second side of this story is that young men will continue to die needlessly while there’s nothing meaningful for them to do at home because the capitalist society they live in can’t provide a job that’s worthwhile and well paid. But that’s ok, because the stock market is booming and house prices may be on the rise again.

Putting casino capitalism out of business could and should be “sold” in a way that appeals to young men every bit as much as the army’s web-based game does. Then instead of invading countries like Afghanistan, poorer nations could be offered support on a non-military, partnership basis. Now there’s a project worth marketing!

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Mind the gap

Despite an agreement to swap half of the 1,200 threatened jobs for a two-year pay freeze and lower pensions, Vauxhall workers in the UK should be warned against welcoming their prospective new Canadian and Russian employers too early.

Massive overcapacity persists in car production as well as the economy in general and no jobs are safe. Last night, for example, the Chinese government set out its detailed plans to deal with overcapacity throughout the huge country’s economy.

China has provided massive support for its major industries in the face of the shutdown of activity in the labour-intensive cities that served the needs of global corporations producing for the now dormant Western consumer markets.

The state has funded infrastructure projects and underwritten production and consumption in the hope that overseas demand for the commodities produced within its borders would recover. But now that hope has evaporated, even though China’s domestic market for cars continues to grow.

Alongside its plans to reduce capacity in traditional industries such as steel, aluminium and cement, China is forced to act on silicon, the key input to the electronics industry, and wind power generation.

In bowing to the logic that follows the credit crunch, China’s State Council said meeting the government's long-standing goal of reducing overcapacity was urgent. Factory closures, job losses and rising bad bank loans would result from inaction.

At the same time the council admitted that the crisis had already spun out of control. Some 58 million tonnes of crude steel capacity under construction is “illegitimate”, and would bring the surplus to 700 million tonnes.

During the globalisation decades that saw it emerge as a major source of profitable cheap labour China grew to become the world’s top producer and consumer of cement. But the global slump has sharply reversed its fortunes. China's cement production capacity will rise to 2.7 billion tonnes per year if all approved projects start operation, and market demand totals only 1.6 billion tonnes. With capitalist-style competition dominating the economy, in 2010 Chinese companies in the wind power industry are expected to produce equipment equivalent to 20 million kilowatts of capacity, double the 10 million kilowatts of actual capacity likely to be installed in the country.

To tackle this oversupply, and in a blow to those in the West who favour a move to localised production, the cabinet said it would refuse approval for the construction of complete wind-power equipment factories. It also banned investors in the sector from using locally-produced equipment, aiming to prevent local governments from building their own equipment plants.

China’s predicament expresses the collapse in demand throughout the major capitalist economies because consumers, all maxed out on credit card and other debt, have stopped spending in the way they did before. And in an economy actually fuelled by debt, this is bad new for capitalism.

Despite aggressive “downsizing” by manufacturing since the recession began, leading to the loss of tens of millions of jobs worldwide, there is still vast overcapacity as shown in the "output gap". This is defined by analysts as the difference between the potential output of a given economy and what is actually being produced (including services).

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is projecting that the situation will actually deteriorate. Next year, the OECD says the output gap among in the advanced economies will widen to -5.7% — the biggest number seen since the 1930s.

HSBC's China economist, Qu Hongbin told Time magazine: "There still is hope that we'll go back to the old days but demand in the future will be lower than in the past. That means the factory owners have to face reality."

That “reality” is that the global recession is heading inexorably towards outright slump and talk of a “recovery” in the near future is delusional. A new economic model is needed to replace a capitalist system that is clearly unsustainable and beyond repair.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Parlament's crisis goes from bad to worse

The present Parliamentary system is fast digging its own grave if yesterday’s events are anything to go by and the danger is that without the creation of a democratic alternative, populist forces could try and replace it with something even worse and less representative.

Westminster is plagued by the abuse of state funds for personal gain (the expenses scandal), the arbitrary use of state power against MPs (the case of Damian Green) and the continuing ignoring of Parliament when it comes to government announcements (the fire sale of state assets planned by Gordon Brown, leaked to the press over the weekend).

The expenses furore lurched towards the ridiculous yesterday when a former senior civil servant appointed by Brown instructed some MPs to repay money while others, notably former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, got away with an apology while being allowed to keep dodgy second-home “allowances”.

MPs complained that the rules had been changed retrospectively to catch them out, and they have a point. But if it’s arbitrary power they’re worried about, then they need look no further than the Cabinet Office, the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police – where the real power in the state is located.

Last year, you will recall, Tory MP Damian Green revealed immigration figures leaked to him by a civil servant. Green was arrested in the House of Commons and held under anti-terror laws while his home was searched from top to bottom on the grounds that the information could threaten “national security”

Of course it was nothing of the kind, but that didn’t prevent Brown’s boot-boys from rampaging about. Two reports published yesterday said Green’s arrest was “disproportionate and ill-advised” (no charges were brought) but the MP was less forgiving. He said if it became a criminal offence to embarrass ministers “then you have crossed a great big line away from being a democracy.”

Pointing to a deteriorating state of relations between the police and the policed, Green added: “My arrest is a very small corner of this but the whole surveillance state, database collection, keeping details of people on the DNA database, all that aggregation of data which makes all of us suspects in the long run is going to make more and more people feel the police are not on my side.”

Green’s comments confirm that it is the power of the state that is overwhelmingly apparent in Britain, with Parliament’s role in this set-up reduced to a cipher. The incredibly low esteem in which Parliament is held is an opportunity as well as a danger.

Its decline reflects a profound shift over the last 30 or so years towards a market, or business state. In this way, Britain has become a branch of a global PLC and the state is its executive management team. Parliament is irrelevant in this arrangement, at best to be “consulted” after the event, at worst to be left to its own devices.

So the challenge is to remake the relations of power in Britain in order to enhance and develop democracy in any meaningful way. A transfer of power out of the hands of the capitalist state, as well the key corporate and financial enterprises, would create the conditions for a new type of revolutionary Parliament along the lines advocated in our People’s Charter for Democracy.

The danger in all this is that the present Parliament becomes so discredited that a clamour led by right-wing populists to shut it down gathers momentum. In the midst of the grave economic and financial crisis, we should be on full alert. We may yet be forced to defend Parliament against authoritarian rule in a way that at the same time challenges the power and legitimacy of the ruling elites themselves.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Monday, October 12, 2009

Italy's sinister power struggle

The political crisis in Italy is deepening by the day, with Silvio Berlusconi arrogantly rejecting a damning verdict of the Constitutional Court and sinister forces around Gianfranco Fini waiting in the wings to take over should the government collapse.

Last week, the seemingly Teflon-immune Berlusconi appeared to suffer a major legal setback. The 15 judges of Italy’s Constitutional Court ruled by a nine to six majority that legislation forced through last year was in breach of the constitution. The law granted immunity to the top four officers of the state, including of course the prime minister himself.

His lawyer notoriously claimed that the prime minister should be “first above equals”. The reason? Berlusconi was on trial at the time – accused of bribing his former UK lawyer, David Mills (estranged husband of New Labour Cabinet Minister Tessa Jowell) to lie in court to the tune of £376,000.

A second charge of corruption was for tax fraud and false accounting to acquire rights for Mediaset, his television company. Mediaset controls four Italian channels and has a majority stake in Spain’s Telecinco. It is valued at £5.1bn. Another court in Milan has also just ruled that Fininvest, Berlusconi’s media empire, must pay £690m in damages for bribing a judge to allow it to take over the Mondadori publishing house, currently valued at £871m.

Berlusconi, who has dominated Italian politics for 15 years, and is presently worth £6bn – the 70th richest man in the world, has struck back by accusing the Constitutional Court of being left wing. He presented himself as the underdog, persecuted by the left, and that to defend himself against wicked judges he has been forced to lash out £192m on “consultants and judges” – whoops, he meant to say lawyers, not judges.

This is a man who is rightly seen by many Italians and others as a “caudillo” or authoritarian strongman in the style of Mussolini and Franco. Eugenio Scalfari, editor of Repubblica newspaper, one of the few not under Berlusconi’s control, has described Berlusconi’s “super-ordained power of leader” as the stuff of dictatorship.

Although Berlusconi’s popularity has dropped dramatically in recent months, he remains buoyed by his majority in parliament, and above all the parlous nature of the centre-left opposition. Berlusconi’s government remains warmly supported by European Union leaders like Nicholas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel, and above all by former PM Tony Blair who holidayed with Berlusconi on two occasions, not to mention Russian ex-president Vladimir Putin.

But whatever the fate of Berlusconi, the real danger in Italy is likely to come from within his recently formed People of Freedom (Popolo della Liberta) party, especially from its co-founder Gianfranco Fini. He may well take advantage of the crisis to stage an internal coup inside Berlusconi’s alliance, by forming a grand coalition or an emergency government, involving businessmen and “elements of the left”.

Fini is a son of fascist parents, who was chosen to be the national secretary of the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), the direct successor to Mussolini’s party. He has stated that Mussolini was “the greatest leader of the 20th century”. Although Fini now poses as a new-born liberal and Berlusconi critic, the notion that he is a “former” fascist is nonsensical. For example, the Bossi-Fini law of 2002 which removed asylum rights and set the scene for some of the worst attacks on immigrants, gypsies and ethnic minorities in present-day western Europe.

Italy is presently in severe economic downturn. It has suffered a 6.3 per cent fall in gross domestic product , the second largest amongst the G7 industrialised nations, trailing only Japan. This combined with a constitutional crisis has serious political implications. A myopic obsession with the empty shell of parliamentarism could allow the really dangerous forces hiding behind Berlusconi to take the initiative.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

Friday, October 09, 2009

Postal workers need first-class leaders

The three to one majority in favour of strike action by postal workers is proof enough that trade unionists are prepared to sacrifice to fight for their jobs and conditions. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the leadership of the Communications Workers Union (CWU) who seem ready to settle for very little indeed.

Postal workers undoubtedly want to keep their (low-paid) jobs at a time when mass redundancies are sweeping through the economy. That’s why they enthusiastically supported the ballot for strike action.

But far from fighting for every job, the CWU leaders actually want the Royal Mail to include them in negotiations about “modernisation” and actually accept that this will mean fewer staff. Union leaders have accepted that “jobs have to go” – they just want to have a say on where the axe falls.

Management has unilaterally reduced services, torn up collective agreements, cut earnings and intimidated staff. This has led to a series of well-supported local walk-outs over the past few months.

What angers the CWU leadership, however, is that they have been cut out of the process. General secretary Billy Hayes says that it “is our view that a labour-intensive industry cannot be modernised unless the workforce is treated with respect”.

So the union’s main demand? In the words of Hayes: “…our members and negotiators are demanding a new national agreement to carry through the modernisation of Royal Mail.”
Adopting management-speak, Hayes calls for a “new engagement with the workforce” so that the dispute can be resolved.

Not only that, CWU leaders are pleading with the New Labour government to put pressure on Royal Mail management to step in. Well, they already have done – on the side of the employers of the state-owned service.

As you will recall, the government only postponed a part-privatisation of the service because no buyer could be found in the middle of a recession. New Labour patently refuses to fund the £7 billion Royal Mail pension deficit – a drop in the ocean compared to the hundreds of billions thrown at the banks.

The government is responsible for imposing a market-driven, commercial framework on the postal service in line with its mission to erode the lines between public and private services in the interests of profit-driven corporations.

Yet Hayes once again appeals for New Labour to carry out its “responsibilities” in line with a motion carried at the party’s recent conference. This is worse than hopeless. Rank-and-file posties deserve better leadership than this. They must demand that the aims of any strike action are crystal clear:

• No redundancies whatsoever. Royal Mail is making a profit while chief executive Adam Crozier is on a £3 million-plus package after shutting thousands of post offices
• Occupation of any sorting office/workplace threatened with sackings
• A halt to the commercialisation/privatisation of the mail service
• Instead of “engagement” with management, fight to bring the service under the democratic control of workers and users.
• Immediate disaffiliation of the CWU from New Labour. Why fund a party that is intent on destroying jobs?
• Launch a campaign with other unions to show how not-for-profit services benefit the public and how this is the way forward in the midst of a capitalist economic crisis.

There are real indications that Royal Mail is provoking a strike, knowing that the CWU leadership is weak and will try to settle at the earliest opportunity. Rank-and-file postal workers must become aware of this and be prepared to replace their leaders with those who are committed to the defence of jobs, pay and services.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Thursday, October 08, 2009

US and EU scupper climate summit

International talks preparing for the Copenhagen climate summit are in disarray and on the point of collapse, as the science is pushed to one side and the discussion descends into self-seeking wrangling. The United States says it will not sign up to an agreement that includes the Kyoto Protocol. Since other countries thought they were negotiating a successor treaty to Kyoto, this is a major blow.

The US wants historic responsibility for climate change on the part of the earliest industrialised countries removed from the picture and countries to set their own emissions reductions targets. But India and China say they will not sign up to any agreement that does not include Kyoto principles.

The existing protocol sets specific emissions target for each industrialised nation while allowing them to use carbon trading schemes to buy or sell “credits”. The protocol was never ratified by the US and the Obama administration has also declined to endorse it.

The European Union signed up to Kyoto but spokesperson Karl Falkenbert now agrees with the US. His smokescreen? "We look at the Kyoto protocol, but since it came into force we have seen emissions increase. It has not decreased emissions.”

All that is true, but the question is, why was it not made clear four years ago that Copenhagen was about negotiating an entirely new framework treaty? Starting on negotiations for a new treaty now means that talks will rumble on into 2015/2016 with no action taken.

At present, the only US offer on the table is a 17% cut from 2005 emission levels by 2020, and even that has not made its into law, though between the recession and carbon off-setting, the US could meet that target without making any real reductions at all.

Even the modest cap-and-trade scheme proposed by the Obama administration is foundering, as frightened Democrats give in to the Republican Right. The only legislation that looks likely to pass is an Energy Bill with a small commitment to renewables, and a rider allowing extensive drilling for new oil and gas off the Florida coast.

Organisations like the Association of Small Island States are in despair. The Maldives, Kiribati, and some of the Bahamas, would be inundated by sea levels more than one metre above current levels – which could happen by 2100, if warming is not kept to a minimum of 1.5%. Samoa, Fiji and other south sea islands have already lost hundreds of acres of coast to rising sea levels.

AOSIS representative Dessima Williams, from Grenada, said: "We face an emergency. We want commitments. We did not create the problem. Any mechanism currently in use is one we want to maintain. National actions are important but they are no substitutes for an international framework.”

But the survival of small island nations is not a priority at Copenhagen, nor drought, hunger, disease or wars over resources. The only priority is the need for capitalist business-as-usual.

There is a kind of liberal piety that says that China historically did not create the emissions, so should not hold back development by making substantial cuts now. But industrial development is not taking place for the benefit of ordinary Chinese. Poverty in the countryside, low wages in the factories and political repression everywhere are the Chinese realities. We should be demanding that all global industries start now to prioritise emissions reductions over profits – wherever they are located on the planet.

Profit-driven forms of production are unsustainable – in terms of climate and the eco-system, raw materials and human health – but capitalism will not vote itself out of prime position at the heart of all international debates. In the end, it will have to be physically removed by the mass action of millions – and we need to do it soon, for our own survival.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Dollar 'time bomb' adds to turmoil

The reaction to the global meltdown has so far consisted of so many variations on a common theme: governments deepening their debt to provide backing for too-big-to-fail stricken banks and central banks inventing new money. The single lyric on the hymn sheet is “save the system, return to growth!”

But it hasn’t been enough to do the trick and everyone knows it. The universal collapse in demand, trade and credit is forcing a new round of consolidation on struggling global corporations. The world economy is hanging on a hardly-functioning financial system while the boom on stock markets is a purely speculative bubble.

Every country is affected, and no government is able to act on its own. The only result of any significance from the G20 in Pittsburgh was the recognition that the unfolding global crisis has outpaced, outgrown and outstripped the 30-year-old political arrangements for managing international economic affairs.

There is a time bomb waiting to go off amidst this turmoil. This is the plan to replace the not-so-mighty dollar as the currency used to trade in oil. The dollar would be replaced by a basket of currencies in addition to gold, according to reports. This move would signal the demise of the United States as the world’s leading capitalist economy, which has used the pre-eminence of the dollar to borrow vast amounts to fund the country’s huge trade and government deficits

The October editions of the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook and the Global Financial Stability Report make for sobering reading. They tell us much about the contradictory forces at work in the economy.

* Reducing excess productive capacity means much higher levels of unemployment are inevitable but this will reduce demand further.
* More intense rates of productivity are needed to reduce costs and restore profitability, but falling prices mean already over-indebted consumers defer purchases awaiting even lower prices.
* More regulation is needed, but the “ability of lenders to diversify funding sources” – like the unregulated derivatives markets at the heart of the crisis – “need to be retained”.
* The financial system must be restored to health, but the reported losses from banks have reached only half the expected levels so far.
* A much greater degree of coordinated government intervention is likely to be needed to support a recovery of production to just a fraction of pre-crisis levels, but can’t continue without rising interest rates strangling that very same recovery.

The global gurus are also pretty sure about one other thing: they’ve no idea if their prescription for “unwinding” the current level of intervention will work, or lead to a new crash. They’re giving no guarantees. This is how they put it: “Given that this is uncharted territory for policymakers, some experimentation may be appropriate to test market conditions. If warranted, reinstatement of some facilities should not be viewed as a setback.”

In other words, they haven’t a clue. You wouldn’t buy a used car from them.

In Britain, Tories and New Labour are vying to carry out the IMF's instructions to slash public spending to pay for bailing out the bankers. Neither party is really letting on about their real intentions, however. Commenting on yesterday’s speech by shadow chancellor George Osborne, the Financial Times noted:

“The effects of these measures – grim though they are – are dwarfed by the scale of the budget deficit. Mr Osborne has announced plans to save £7bn ($11bn) per year by the end of the next parliament, with changes to the pension age – beginning in 2016 – eventually contributing up to £13bn. The budget deficit this year? £175bn.”
Balancing the books will, therefore, require cuts so immense that they will destabilise society and create social upheaval. The state is undoubtedly preparing for such an eventuality and we would be well advised to do the same.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Stop the vandals at the gate!

Since its foundation in 1984, the Turner Prize has stimulated widespread debate and a popular interest in contemporary art. Tate Britain director Stephen Deuchar said yesterday that last year’s prize drew a record 90,000 visitors.

Work by the four artists shortlisted for the £25,000 Turner Prize traditionally provides a target for those with axes to grind. And indeed, even those enthusiastic about contemporary art have often found that finalists in previous years conformed too heavily to the taste of an elite circle of curators and galleries.

But this year’s group, which goes on display today at Tate Britain, has bucked the trend. There is an unusual and powerful sense of beauty in the art works by Roger Hiorns, Lucy Skaer and Richard Wright.

And, odd man out Enrico David’s surreal group of lanky stuffed legs and humpty-dumpty shaped figures, has a wry, thought-provoking sense of humour. He uses a cast of characters to order his confused reactions to reality, thus performing psychoanalysis on himself.

Hiorns’ ash-coloured dust heaped on the floor has a haunting, almost apocalyptic feeling. When we learn that it is metal dust ground from an atomised passenger jet engine, the sense of mystery deepens. It morphs before our eyes into an exquisite shifting landscape in delicate shades of greys and blacks.

Wright’s vast wall painting, which will disappear forever when the show is over, invites contemplation as it evokes decorative designs by Rococo masters like Tiepolo as well as visionary elements drawn from artists like William Blake.

The Tate’s formidable trio of female interpreters, introducing the finalists, yesterday drew attention to the strong formal and psychological aspects of these works. But in addition, as a group, the artists have made a successful direct appeal to a sense of beauty combined with rather ominous undertones (the use of bovine brain matter, Skaer’s gigantic whale skeleton, for example) and the transformation of materials.

There is a sense of enigma, of foreboding, of things to come – which relates to the psychological climate of a Britain on the eve of massive social and cultural transformation. In the microcosm of artistic experimentation, the search for new languages and forms of communication outside and beyond the accustomed channels, a larger reality begins to emerge.

So, we must thank these artists who have eschewed the cheap thrills and rampant commercialism of recent years to explore new aspects of reality and imagination to expand the realm of human knowledge and perception.

At the other end of the cultural spectrum, far from the privileged spaces of the Tate and galleries in major “hubs”, educational institutions and local museums are struggling for their very existence. Local authority leaders like Tory Mike Freer says that his Barnet council in north London, “does not do culture”. And Broxtowe Council near Nottingham plans to cut £60,000 from a heritage centre which provides visitor and educational facilities for the D. H. Lawrence birthplace museum, which is the area’s major cultural attraction.

In London, in measures whose legality is under scrutiny, trustees at the Courtauld Institute of Art have sacked the staff of its world famous photographic libraries, in a desperate cost-cutting measure which means that some three million images will be withdrawn from public view.

Whilst glittering parties continue at private venues like the Saatchi and Gagosian galleries and the global auction houses gamble in the markets, culture in other areas faces death by a thousand cuts. We need a leap in imagination in the field of social and political action to match the inspiration provided by the Turner Prize artists to stop the vandals before it is too late.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

Monday, October 05, 2009

The only way to stop the Tories

As time runs out for the New Labour government, the big question is how do we stop the Tories? The answer is made more difficult by the fact that there is no practical electoral answer to this matter.

For example, there is no way that you could advocate a vote for New Labour at the forthcoming general election. The party led by Gordon Brown is essentially capitalist in its outlook and practice, as it has shown in more than 12 years in power. From the beginning under Tony Blair, it assumed the role of the political management team in Britain for global corporate and financial power.

Policies inherited from the previous Tory governments have been deepened and applied in a ruthless fashion across the public sector, from education to health, while the private sector was set free to pursue profit and promote globalisation. Internationally, the government pursued neo-imperialist policies by invading Iraq and Afghanistan while domestically New Labour constructed the edifice of an authoritarian state.

Now that the world capitalist economy has plunged into crisis, New Labour government is in trouble politically and with the electorate. Tough! There’s no way anyone should help them out by lending them a vote at the next election and certainly not on the spurious ground that the Tories “will be worse”.

As for voting Lib Dem, well the party has swung so far to the right under Nick Clegg that even a forensic scientist would be hard-pressed to tell them apart from David Cameron’s Tories.

Over the last couple of decades not only have the three main parties have coalesced while the capitalist state, including the Parliamentary system, now openly rather than covertly functions in the service of economic and financial elites, as the bank bail-outs demonstrated.

So where does that leave us? What is certain is that the economic crisis is set to get far worse over the next six months, that whoever wins the election will be faced with an immediate political crisis and that we will have to produce some unconventional solutions to find a practical way forward.

In an interview with the Financial Times today, Michael Geoghegan, chief executive of HSBC, warns of a second downturn in the coming months. One of the better capitalised banks, HSBC is holding off from expansion plans in the expectation of a W or “double-dip” recession.

Geoghegan has no doubt studied the latest unemployment figures from the United States, which show that 7.2 million people have lost their jobs since the beginning of the current recession in December 2007. The total population of the unemployed in America is now 15.1 million. One estimate is that about one-in-six employable Americans are without a job.

Meanwhile, California – the eighth largest economy in the world – is bankrupt. Thousands of public sector workers are losing their jobs and having their pay cut. Students are revolting against plans a mid-year increase in tuition fees. This is the kind of crsis that the Tories, or whatever political formation comes out of the election, will face. Not some cuts here and there but ruthless, savage, drastic and draconian cuts in the midst of a recession. And beginning the day after the election.

So to answer the question about how to stop the Tories, it means building a movement that recognises what’s at stake. A World to Win’s People’s Charter for Democracy suggests how economic and political power could be transferred out of the hands of the powerless majority. The way forward, in our view, lies beyond putting a cross on a ballot paper for a Parliamentary system that masks the need for the state to dispense with democratic niceties in order to impose the crisis on ordinary people.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Friday, October 02, 2009

Weather warning

Today everyone is focused on the devastation caused by the Samoan tsunami and the Sumatran earthquake. There is no suggestion that these events are connected to climate change, but as governments in the area struggle to deal with the aftermath, we can see a hint of the future unless urgent action is taken to halt global warming.

The reality is that the the frequency and intensity of extreme weather is already beyond the ability of governments to protect populations.

Over the last ten days there have been massive dust storms clouding Sidney and Brisbane, driven by 100km an hour winds, while grass fires rage out of control in Queensland. In the Phillippines, hundreds are dead and thousands homeless in flooding caused by a severe storm.

Oxfam warned this week that 23 million people are facing severe hunger due to climate change-exacerbated drought in East Africa.

There is drought across the globe. In north east China the crucial corn crop will be down one eighth this year. The Paraguay economy has contracted by 8% because of drought. In the US states of Texas, California and Florida, job losses and bankruptcies are mounting in the farming industry.

At a climate conference in Oxford entitled “Four degrees and beyond....”, scientists warned that without a dramatic decrease in emissions things will get worse far more quickly than expected and global warming will exceed four degrees by the end of this century.

In a 4 degrees warmer world, drought migrations on a massive scale would be inevitable, along with species and plant extinctions. About 40 million people worldwide live in flood plains, the conference heard, equivalent to 0.6 percent of the global population and most of them would be on the move.

The answer to all of this is in our hands. A 70% reduction in emissions between now and the end of the century will prevent the worst impacts, and we could set about mitigating the rest.

But as conference convenor Dr Mark New, from the Tyndall Centre, said: "Since the late 1990s, greenhouse gas emissions have increased at close to the most extreme IPCC scenarios, meaning that rates of warming will be faster than most people expect".

That means that since the original Earth Summit in 1992, when most governments were clear that there was a growing crisis, the rate of emissions has actually speeded up.

Climate campaigners are giving a desperate focus to the Copenhagen summit in December, but it will be no different from all the rest. All the fine words from Chinese President Wen Jiabao and US President Barack Obama are not being translated into action. In the midst of a global drive to rescue the capitalist economy, climate change is slipping down the agenda in reality, if not in words.

However the fact that our governments are committed to the continuation of the current economic system by any means necessary should not prevent us from seeking solutions to this global crisis. But that means taking power into our own hands, and ensuring that the future is not sacrificed to short-term profit.

Finally, we should note that whilst these current terrible earthquakes are in an active seismic zone, earthquakes too could become more frequent as climate change intensifies. Research suggests that the melting of glaciers relieves pressure on the tectonic plates and so they settle into new configurations, causing seismic reactions.

Penny Cole
Environment editor

Thursday, October 01, 2009

China's rulers are right to be nervous

The celebrations earlier today to mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China were amongst the strangest in history. Residents in Beijing were told that they were likely to be shot if they opened any window or balcony door facing the route of the anniversary parade. Police shouted at people to watch the displays of military might on television rather than venture onto the streets.

Since July there has been a major clampdown on Internet communications, such as Facebook, U-tube and Twitter, according to most accounts, including Reporters Without Borders, who remarked: “The Electronic Great Wall has never been as consolidated as it is now, on the eve of the 1 October anniversary, proving that the Chinese government is not so sure of its record.”

There is no doubt that Mao Zedong’s proclamation on 1 October 1949 of the founding of the People’s Republic of China was a momentous event. It was a triumphant end to no less than three anti-colonial revolutions and decades of civil war between the nationalists of the Kuomintang capitalist classes and the Peoples Liberation Army.

Chinese peasants and working masses toppled the might of British, Japanese and US colonialism and challenged the power of the Chinese bourgeoisie. The Kuomintang were massively aided by the United States and other capitalist powers, while the Soviet Union supported the PLA, albeit in a duplicitous way. The success of the Chinese Revolution marked a tectonic shift in the struggle by developing nations to free themselves from old and new imperial powers.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Stalinist-influenced Chinese Communist Party pursued a series of exaggerated policy turns, some of which led to famine, in a bid to overcome the country’s isolation. The Cultural Revolution was launched in attempt to defeat bureaucracy but turned into an orgy of violence against intellectuals and dissidents.

After Mao’s death in 1976, a power struggle resulted in a leadership that would eventually take down China down the capitalist road. From the 1990s, China became the manufacturing centre of the world economy as the global capitalist corporations moved into the country. Chinese corporations are now amongst the world’s biggest predators for oil, gas, water, mineral and land resources, competing ferociously for territory and power. The ruling elites and the middle classes have benefited from China’s rise to become the world’s biggest exporting nation and third largest economy. This enabled the rulers to keep a lid on things.

But in the wake of the global financial crash the Chinese economy is being shaken by vast cutbacks in production which has led to waves of sackings. Many of the millions who migrated to cities in past decades are now being forced back to the countryside, but without the old securities. Social unrest and strikes are commonplace, while issues like the lack of care for the victims of the Sichuan earthquake in May 2008 lead to hostile anti-government demonstrations. Those who try to defend the earthquake victims, like world-famous artist-designer Ai Weiwei, have their blogs shut down and are cruelly beaten by police.

Alongside repression of internal dissent, the Chinese government rules with a mailed fist against rebellious national, ethnic and religious minorities within the country’s borders, not to speak of its active support for dictatorships around the world, from Burma to Sri Lanka.

During September there was another brutal clampdown on the Uighur peoples in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. The World Uighur Congress said that near 800 Uighurs were killed after Han Chinese attacks and following intervention of Chinese government forces.

Members of the Politburo and Central Committee are desperate to being seen as the heirs of the Chinese Revolution. The reality, of course, is quite different. In recent decades, the Communist Party has turned into the vehicle for promoting the interests of a self-serving ruling elite while headlong growth has seen an environmental and public health nightmare.

The nervousness of President Hu Jintao and the bureaucrats who control virtually all the political and economic top positions is apparent. They are terrified lest their carefully manipulated claim to legitimacy is torn to shreds by 1.3 billion people over whom they rule. They live in fear of a repeat of the events of 1989, when students and workers joined together in a pro-democracy movement, encouraged by Gorbachev’s glasnost in the Soviet Union, only to be put down in the bloodbath in Tiananmen Square. As many China experts note, the ruling regime is fragile and ossified and a renewal of the country’s revolutionary tradition is long overdue.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary