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Thursday, 29 September 2011

#OCCUPYWALLSTREET


The radical and revolutionary left have learned to live with a mainstream news blackout as part of life. Yet the complete silence from the US and UK news media about the Occupy Wall Street movement has been nothing short of deafening. Especially, given the way the tiniest fart from the wretched Tea Party is amplified far and wide...

On 17 September 5,000 people – largely young campaigners, artists and students - marched on Wall St, New York, in protest at the activities of the bankers and super-rich. Finding their way blocked by large numbers of police, undeterred, they held a ‘people’s assembly’ and then set up a semi-permanent protest encampment in a park on Liberty St, near both Wall St and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. In the words of American anti-capitalist activist Virginia Rodino, interviewed in Socialist Worker: “The protest has a spirit reminiscent of the 1999 demonstrations in Seattle. It aims to represent the 99 percent that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1 percent at the top of society...protestors compare their action to that of the Arab Spring...”

The police have several times attacked the peaceful protest. Videos have shown people knocked to the ground and arrested for no reason, and a group of young women corralled into a holding area and sprayed in the face with pepper spray. The police violence has made Occupy Wall St worldwide news.

Protests modelling themselves on Occupy Wall Street have taken place in other American cities, notably Boston, where Paul Harris in the Guardian believes the move raises the first serious prospect of the Wall Street protests spreading beyond New York. Other events are planned in Los Angeles and Washington.

Some commentators mocked the movement for its youth and ‘hippie vibe.’ Actually, in this global crisis, it is young people who stand to lose most. In Spain the young are the backbone of the Los Indignados. In Britain it was the militant student protests in November 2010 which acted as a game-changer for levels of UK resistance. Even the 2011 English riots came from the young. (The 1917 Russian Revolution was certainly carried through by the young. Revolutions tend to be...)

And as for the ‘hippy’ slur...Although they would have rejected that label, I remember some of the most militant protest I saw as I hitched around the USA in 1968 came from ‘freaks’, ‘heads’ – young people who, on a cultural and sometimes political level, opposed ‘the system.’ I remember the high level of militancy in 1968 in the US, the real combativeness as young people resisted the war in Vietnam. It was a society in total revolt, with armoured cars on the streets of Berkeley, and made the UK look tame and de-politicised in comparison. If the people out on Wall Street are ‘hippies,’ they will be hippies steeled in the catastrophe of the 21st century: hippies with attitude.

Comrades need to remind themselves that without a revolution in America, led by American workers, students and the poor, world socialism (the only sort) is impossible, so the fact that resistance is emerging in the US, the belly of the beast, is hugely important. How the movement will develop is uncertain, but it carries within it not only the spirit of Seattle and the Arab spring, but also of the labour struggles in Wisconsin earlier this year.

This is happening at a time when one in six Americans is living in poverty. When the Medicaid and Medicare health welfare systems are being targeted for cuts. And when high unemployment is expected throughout the coming year. ..

Monday, 26 September 2011

MORE BALLS FROM BALLS


Ed Balls’s speech was flat and uninspiring. Part of the problem for Labour is that they did so little to help people’s lives when they were in power that nobody really believes them now. It is all perceived as spin and rhetoric. They had years to put things right - they could have re-opened some of the many factories the Tories closed down for example – rescuing the manufacturing industry that everybody now seems to think we should be reviving. Or they could have scrapped the Private Finance Initiative schemes that are now revealed – shock, horror – to be the scam the left always said they were.

There is a lot more than the economy that Labour could start apologising for. First on my list would be the Iraq war – there’s lots of people who are owed an apology for that. No – don’t apologise to the people who marched against the war – apologise to the families and friends of the thousands of Iraqis you tortured and killed, and the millions you turned into refugees. Until you apologise for that any other apology will seem rather pointless...

The other problem for Balls is that he is actually speaking to three audiences: one, the unimportant one, the Labour party members in the hall; the other, real, audience, those almost holy (and certainly ineffable) entities - the markets, and their agencies on earth, the IMF and World Bank. And then of course there are the overwhelmingly right-wing media, who, phone-hacking or no, must be pandered to.

To avoid alarming these august bodies, everything is pitched in neoliberal terms. But because the Tories give a more hardcore impression in these matters than Labour everything Balls says seems rather half-baked and feeble. Why vote for something that goes half way when you can vote for the real thing? Why not go for the biting, astringent cuts the Tories seem to orgasm over and which always made me feel was attributable to the beatings they received at Eton.

In any event, anybody these days who unveils a economic “five-point plan” that does not involve taxing the rich should be suspended over a slow fire for several hours. What were Balls’s rallying calls? Temporarily cutting VAT on home improvements, bringing forward investment projects and giving tax breaks to small firms. And oh yes, I forgot, using a ‘bank bonus tax’ to build 25,000 ‘affordable homes’ (really affordable? Affordable to whom?) and work for 100,000 young people, and temporarily reversing January’s VAT rise. How many homeless do we have? How many unemployed young people? These are elastoplast solutions when what is needed is surgery.

Fine the bankers the few trillion they stole from us? No chance.Tax the rich? Not a hope. Tobin tax? No way. Withdraw from a hugely expensive Afghan occupation? Don’t make me laugh.

There was no sense of urgency about the catastrophe that threatens to overwhelm us if Osborne’s cuts do what I confidently predict they will do – precipitate a depression.

The backdrop to this mundane and uninspiring speech was a deepening crisis, with European leaders struggling to save the Eurozone, bucking markets and the impending default of Greece, where some are already discussing bringing back the junta, and crime and suicide rates are steadily rising as a result of government cuts. Gordon Brown missed the chance to regulate the banks. Balls, Milliband and the Labour party are missing the chance to lead a fight against a government whose policies run the risk of dragging us into economic depression. At this rate, the Tories could easily win a second term.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

CLOSE THE COALHOUSE DOOR


In south Wales we thought the destruction of the coal industry and its communities had at least had one beneficial effect: no longer would families have to endure the agonising wait to find out if their loved ones underground were alive or dead. We were wrong.

I remember, as a schoolboy, the Aberfan disaster, when 116 children and 28 adults died under a landslide of colliery waste from the tip that overlooked the school. I remember my father, a clergyman, driving up to the village to help comfort the bereaved.

In Alex Glasgow’s great song about Aberfan, “Close the Coalhouse Door” he considers the heavy social cost of coal. “Close the coalhouse door, lad, there’s blood inside...”With the virtual destruction of the industry, we thought we had stopped paying such a high price.

But with rising unemployment in south Wales, and with the price of anthracite – a high-value, dense smokeless fuel – rising on the world markets, little private drift mines like Gleision are being opened up again, wherever anthracite can be mined. Dangerous as it is, people come to mining out of sheer economic necessity. One of the men who died at Gleision had been made redundant from his job in February and then found work underground. Relatives said the pit was only kept going because the men could not find any other work. These are small, often owner-worker outfits.

Un-unionised and primitive, conditions in some of these places are grim. As one ex-miner commented, “There was no such thing as health and safety for these boys. It is not viable to take coal out of these small mines without cutting corners.” The tunnels in the Gleision mine looked like something out of the Victorian era.

A Swansea-based company called Coal Direct Ltd ran Gleision from 2006 until 2009 when it went into liquidation with reported debts of £240,000. It applied to open the underground extension that the men were working, but was taken over by a company called MNS Mining Ltd. The activities and safety standards of these small private companies must be properly scrutinised, and the inquiry by the police and Health and Safety Executive into the cause of the flooding must be detailed and thorough.

A major problem at Gleision seems to have been the lack of detailed information about the network of tunnels in the hillside. The men seem to have pierced an old, unknown chamber which had been flooded by weeks of heavy rain. As different companies had men working in different areas and over different timescales, stretching back over very long periods, there was no overall coordination of information about the sites of old workings. This tragedy was avoidable: it occurred because there was no agency responsible for coordinating activities overall, and keeping detailed records.

From now on there must be much stronger regulation of the private mining industry. This is a good time for the Welsh Assembly to demonstrate the ‘clear red water’ between it and Westminster by taking the initiative here to ensure that proper regulation is imposed. If we want to save lives, the deregulation and cuts to health and safety which are being driven forward by central government cannot be allowed to happen. To be really safe, of course, the mining industry needs to be completely unionised and nationalised. The lack of health and safety is a direct consequence of the reduction of trade union influence.

If nothing is done, with anthracite fetching a good price on the market, and with unemployment growing in south Wales, other Gleisions are only too possible.

Friday, 16 September 2011

MR BEAN at the TUC



Ed Milliband’s speech at the TUC was rather like listening to somebody from another planet. It didn’t help that sometimes he does rather look like somebody from another planet. But to tell workers whose pensions are about to be ripped off big time that they shouldn't go on strike is to say the least ill-advised. Especially when he follows through by saying that the next Labour government won’t reverse any of this. ’Can’t’ is what he said, but won’t is actually what he meant.

His political minders have told him that whatever he says, he must oppose strikes, as it will lose Labour votes. But up to 3 million workers look set to strike on 29 November, with more later. Don’t any of them vote?

He sounded truly dislocated from reality. At least, from the reality that I can see.

What I can see is: millions of public sector workers braced for the attacks on jobs and services which are coming. Millions more disgusted at the phone-hacking scandal and the even greater scandal of the bankers. I see uprisings throughout Europe, revolutions in the middle East, and even in Britain demonstrations and riots.

These things are deeply interconnected, occuring as the ruling classes of the world try to make working people pay for the greed and fuck-ups of the bankers and the rich. And Millipede reflects nothing of this: instead he upbraids trade unionists for even thinking about going on strike to defend their pensions.


How detached from real life has Labour become? Its deference to the free market means there are no reference-points with reality left. Blair took ‘New’ Labour further into a neoliberal world of managerialism and management-speak, a bizarre born-again sect which acted as social democratic cheer leaders for the free market.


Crucially, they jetissoned any notion of real social critique. Suddenly, the line was that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the system. The logic from this is that, if problems occur, they are the fault of the individual.

Unemployment does not happen because capital needs a reserve army of labour to keep wages down. It happens because people are too lazy to work.

Education does not fail children because classes are too large and because kids are not really being trained to think for themselves. And the jobs they need don't exist. Instead, it is the fault of bad teachers, who do not work hard enough to implement a top-down curriculum.

Homelessness does not occur because a fundamentally profit-based system is so dysfunctional that it does not regard providing decent housing for its citizens as a basic human right. Instead it is because of the failings of a lumpenproletariat layer of substance-abusers and chavs.

I could go on. The logic of the position is as clear as it is chilling. It is this: if you (as a party, or as a government) wish things to improve (and which party doesn't?), you have to pressurise these failing people into changing their ways. You have, literally, to attack them.

Of course, this provides a neat rationale for the cuts. And it is not simply an economic but also an ideological assault. Milliband praises the academy schools in his constituency, despite the fact that on some level he must know that the academies programme will take money away from the very schools which need it, and will undermine pay and conditions for teachers.

There is talk of ‘lack of aspiration’ as if the homeless are homeless because they have low self-esteem, not because there are not enough houses. In this free market world people are on the sick not because of a system which makes people sick, but because they are lazy.

Target-driven, monotonous shit agency jobs with no trade unions are depicted as the model, the doorway to the sunlit uplands.

Most of us can see that the system doesn't work. It was never meant to work for workers. But nowadays there is doubt whether it is capable any more of generating the sort of profits capitalists have grown accustomed to. It is entering a state of protracted crisis, reflecting what Marx said years ago about the tendency of the rate of profit to decline. Social democratic parties, in some ways even more than the right, are in denial about this.

The real problem is a political one. Labour believes the working class does not exist in any meaningful sense any more. It has believed this for some time. People like Stuart Hall and Eric Hobsbawm exemplify this position. Their 1980s ‘New Times’ analysis in Marxism Today extended the Andre Gorz thesis of ‘Farewell to the Working Class’ ad absurdum. The logical extension of this is the attempt, via the Blue Labour project, to obliterate any real differences with the right. This occurs at a time when, both in Scotland and to a lesser extent in Wales, the Tory party is realising that voters' awareness of its toxicity is a permanent feature, necessitating a re-branding exercise.

HOWEVER...IT LOOKS AS IF on 30 NOVEMBER MILLIONS OF WORKERS ARE GOING TO IGNORE MR BEAN & TAKE THINGS INTO THEIR OWN HANDS....

(...watch this space...)

Friday, 9 September 2011

WHO WERE THE WELSH?


The Llanelli riots, and the other Welsh rebellions of 1910-1914, were driven by class antagonisms, rather than being in any real sense national uprisings. That they arose out of industrial conflict makes this self-evident.

But it is also the case that what it meant to be Welsh was changing in this period. Who were the Welsh? National identity is never fixed under capitalism, but fluid, depending on population flows which are determined by access to work and to a means of livelihood. Immigration into south Wales during the early part of the 20th century not only shaped the society in profound and fundamental ways, but was crucial in enabling the survival of a distinctive Welsh people and culture at all.

In drawing so many people into its growing cities and towns, Wales was unique in Britain. From the 1860s until 1914, Wales moves out of phase with England, Scotland and Ireland and from the 1890s becomes a country of net immigration. In fact, during the amazing decade before the First World War Wales is the only country on the planet to register a plus in the immigration tables outside the USA.

In “When Was Wales?”, his powerful study of Welsh history and identity, Gwyn Alf Williams notes that, “In that tumultuous decade (1904-14), when something like 130,000 people – and a mixed, polyglot, buoyant and innovatory people they were – flooded into the coal valleys of south Wales, Wales, with an immigrant rate of 45 per 10,000, ranks second, by rate, only to the USA itself as a world centre of immigration.”

Gwyn Alf argues that, had Wales not been industrialised during the 19th century, its people would have suffered the same fate as the southern Irish. ”Any recognisable entity which could be called ‘Wales’ would have disappeared in the nineteenth century, its people blown away by the winds of the world.” It was only massive immigration from England, Ireland, Spain, Italy and elsewhere that enabled the continued existence of a distinct Welsh people. Cardiff’s Afro-Caribbean community had been established, of course, since the 1700s, and was the oldest in Britain apart from Liverpool, growing initially out of the slave trade.

Not only was there a massive influx of people from outside Wales, there was also mass migration from rural Wales into the growing towns and cities. It was in this period that what we came to recognise as a distinctive Welsh culture began to emerge. The Nonconformist, radical, Welsh-speaking Wales we recognise was a by-product of industrialisation and its attendant immigration.

Without mass immigration, the Llanelli we recognise in 1911, with its chapels, its tinplate mills, its docks and its railways, would never have existed.