Ideas and Arguments

International

Hong Kong: a mass movement which will not easily be demobilised

July 1st in Hong Kong is Handover Day, the anniversary of the handing back of Hong Kong by the British to China in 1997. It is a public holiday, marked by official celebrations, but also by a demonstration. In some years this simply brings together a rather motley collection of people with many different causes, but in other years it has been a massive display of public feeling on a particular issue; for example in 2003, when around 500,000 people marched against the introduction of national security legislation under Article 23 of the Basic Law which governs Hong Kong’s relationship with the central Chinese government in Beijing. The law was shelved and has still to be introduced.

This year there has also been a massive mobilisation on July 1st – though the police estimated only 98,000, the march took seven hours to reach its destination and photographs from above show huge crowds. It seems likely that the turnout was similar to 2003, around the half million mark, and certainly the largest since that year. Very large sums of money were collected on the march by the organisers, Occupy Central (HK$1.39 million – £105,000) and by the radical League of Social Democrats (HK$930,000 – £70,000) whose most famous member of the Legislative Council, “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, is currently in jail as a result of a previous protest.

There were rumours of some supporting actions in mainland China, including just across the border in Shenzhen, where some journalists from Hong Kong who were looking to report on an action which had been referred to on social media, were detained by the police for several hours. Certainly pictures of the Hong Kong march were posted on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular social media platform, before being removed by censors. According to the media monitoring project at Hong Kong University Weibo was censored more heavily on July 1st this year even than on the anniversary of Tiananmen.

The march was followed by an all-night sit-in in the road near the government headquarters. Over five hundred arrests were made and those arrested were taken to a temporary detention centre where they were deprived of food and drink, and access to toilet facilities and lawyers for hours. Most were released with warnings – it is not clear if these are intended to prevent them taking part in other protests.  The protesters remained calm and practised classic passive resistance techniques, requiring up to five police officers to remove each person from the road, so it was a slow process. The police did not use pepper spray or tear gas in this instance, but earlier they had penned many people into the park and not allowed them to join the march or to leave and also separated people into smaller groups, tactics which are familiar to people in the UK. Protesters monitored police behaviour, shouting out their badge numbers as they arrested people. In one instance, a pro-Beijing counter-demonstrator slapped a protester in the face and was then surrounded by the crowd until the police rescued him. A group of protesters then chased the police, denouncing them for sympathising with him.

There have been chaotic scenes in the Legislative Council today as pan-democrats (broadly all the parties which are not pro-Beijing) staged a protest during the Chief Executive’s Question and Answer session, holding up placards, shouting and throwing things in his direction before walking out.

The main issue driving people onto the demonstration was the question of universal suffrage, which has long been promised to Hong Kong. At present, the Legislative Council is partly directly elected, but a built-in majority for pro-Beijing parties is assured by various bits of gerrymandering, including ‘functional constituencies’ which have a handful of electors in many cases, including corporate entities such as banks and property companies. The Chief Executive is ‘elected’ by a small committee and is essentially appointed by Beijing. People may have wondered if they have seen pictures of the demonstration why people are carrying placards with ‘689’ on them – this is the number of votes received by the current Chief Executive, C Y Leung. The Hong Kong government has this year been engaged in a farcical public consultation about how universal suffrage will be introduced for the next CE election in 2017.  Beijing has made it clear that it will not allow nomination of candidates by political parties or by the public, only by a narrow nominating committee, and that candidates must be ‘patriotic’ – so what it is essentially saying is, you can vote, but we will decide the candidates you can vote for.

A movement to push for real universal suffrage, Occupy Central, was founded last year and  is the main force behind the march this year. The plan is to occupy the central business district in Hong Kong Island and block the roads if the government fails to offer a plan for real democracy meeting international standards. Occupy Central organised an unofficial referendum on plans for genuine democracy which took place late last month, using online voting and physical polling stations. Despite a huge denial of service attack on the voting system – at one point three billion requests were bombarding the servers in the space of a few hours – the voting went ahead and 780,000 people registered their votes, using their ID numbers and mobile SIM cards. This was dismissed as illegal and irrelevant by Beijing and the HK government – which has also made no move to investigate the cyber-attack, even though it was extended to the whole .hk domain at one stage, which could have affected the emergency services.

Voting in the referendum and attendance at the demonstration was undoubtedly boosted by Beijing’s issuing of a White Paper on Hong Kong last month which it said was intended to correct the ‘lopsided’ interpretation of many Hongkongers of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle. Among other things it described judges as ‘administrators’ and said they had to be ‘patriots’, which resulted in a silent march by lawyers wearing black through the centre of Hong Kong.  It remains unclear these days exactly what the ‘two systems’ are, incidentally – capitalism, and er, capitalism. But Beijing is very sure it is One Country.  There have also been a series of attacks – physical and otherwise – on the media, and journalists have recently voiced their concerns about increased censorship and pressures towards self-censorship.

The situation now is tense. Whereas in previous confrontations, such as over Article 23, or the planned introduction of ‘national education’ two years ago (widely seen as an attempt to brainwash Hong Kong’s children), the government simply backed down, in this case, they have no room for manoeuvre, except perhaps to deny any reforms and stick to the existing system. There have been veiled threats to use the PLA (stationed in Hong Kong) to maintain order if Occupy Central led to violence. Occupy is committed to non-violence, but we all know that the police are capable of transforming peaceful protests into scenes of violence if they choose to do so.

Occupy has weaknesses. It is dominated by the pan-democrats,  some of whom have been stupid enough to consort with Paul Wolfowitz on his yacht on a recent visit to Hong Kong. The pan-democrats are very divided and it is possible that some could still reach a deal with the government. There is no sign of class mobilisation in the form of planned strikes. However, there is certainly a class dimension to the protests, in that Hong Kong is one of the most unequal societies in the world, and people are sick of living in cramped expensive apartments and working very long hours for low pay while the city is run by a handful of the very rich and their political hangers-on. These people increasingly prioritise their economic interests on the mainland over Hong Kong, and therefore are keen to curry favour there. But this time Beijing and the Hong Kong government have succeeded in producing a genuine mass movement which will not easily be demobilised.

Candles in the night: Report on 4 June vigil in Hong Kong commemorating Tiananmen Square massacre

On 4 June every year, Hong Kong remembers the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989 with a candlelight vigil in Victoria Park. This year was the 25th anniversary and the turnout was huge, with organisers putting the numbers at more than 180,000, and even the police estimate was 99,500 (clearly they couldn’t breach the psychologically resonant 100,000), in a city of 7 million. It certainly seemed the largest since I began going three years ago after moving to Hong Kong. As in previous years, the crowd encompassed all age groups, but was disproportionately young. There was a real feeling of solidarity, which extended to us, as people helped each other to light and relight the candles against the evening breeze. Any breeze was welcome, as the temperature was still close to 30 degrees at 8pm and incredibly humid.  An elderly man gave us a big thumbs up. It was a very emotional event, and it was impossible not to be moved as everyone in the crowd held up their candles at the same time when the names of those known to have been killed were read out. Some of the exiled former leaders of the movement spoke on video, and a prominent civil rights lawyer, Teng Biao, from the mainland addressed the crowd, although he had been warned a week ago in a phone call that he would face ‘serious consequences’ if he attended the vigil. While many people on the mainland have been detained in recent weeks, showing the fear still felt by the Chinese Communist Party at the mere memory of 1989, even in Hong Kong the websites of the vigil organisers have been offline due to sustained denial of service attacks, undoubtedly directed by Beijing. A Taiwanese academic who came to Hong Kong to attend a conference on Tiananmen was also denied entry to the city. Many people from the mainland do attend the vigil, and this year it was a larger number than ever, judging by the donations on the night made in Yuan rather than Hong Kong dollars – up 60% on last year, according to the organisers.

It is the largest event commemorating Tiananmen in the world, and this is for two interconnected reasons:  firstly, Hongkongers are acutely aware that their city is the only place in China (apart from Macau, where at least until this year, the population has been much more quiescent) where this is possible and that places an obligation on them to come out and show that they have not forgotten either the aspirations or the crushing of the movement. Secondly, there is a growing sense in Hong Kong that Beijing is tightening its grip on the city, in subtle and not so subtle ways, and many Hongkongers – at least those that do not own and rule the place, the property developers and businessmen only too happy to cuddle up to Beijing – feel that it is crucial to show that they don’t intend to let it happen by default.

A number of events have tended to reinforce the sense of increased threat to Hong Kong’s freedoms. In 2012 the government in Hong Kong attempted to insert ‘national education’ into Hong Kong’s school curriculum. This would have been via a fairly nakedly one-sided account of recent Chinese history. It provoked massive demonstrations, led by a new school student organisation called Scholarism, which was out in force on the vigil as well. The government backed off. Then there is the perceived threat to freedom of the press; early this year, the editor of a Chinese-language paper critical of Beijing was suddenly removed from his post and a few weeks later, he was attacked in the street by men carrying choppers and very nearly killed. Although there have been arrests, the hired attackers have not revealed who paid them. A radio talk show host who regularly criticises the government was also sacked at around the same time and there was also a violent physical attack on people who were trying to launch a new paper. Polls of journalists show that they feel that both censorship and the pressure to censor themselves are growing.

Finally, there is a deadline of 2017 to bring in universal suffrage for the election of the Chief Executive (the legislature is mainly directly elected but with a number of fixes which guarantee the pan-democrats, parties broadly opposed to Beijing, cannot get a majority). Beijing favours a system for the Chief Executive election where everyone can vote but the candidates can only be put forward by a narrow nominating committee. A movement called Occupy Central has been formed which has pledged mass civil disobedience – taking the form of people blocking the roads in the Central Business District – if the reforms do not guarantee a genuine choice of candidates. This is bringing forth various dark threats and warnings. Hongkongers are very aware that the People’s Liberation Army is stationed in Hong Kong in the old British barracks, and a pro-Beijing lawmaker asked the Chief Executive recently if he would ask for its help to deal with the Occupy movement if the police were unable to keep order. Needless to say, the question was not answered directly, but it is not too surprising that people in Hong Kong feel the need to come out and remember 4 June 1989.

As we were leaving the park we stopped at a stall run by Socialist Action (CWI affiliate here http://chinaworker.info/en/) where a young man told us that while lighting candles was good, it was not enough. He was perhaps a bit surprised at how readily we agreed.

You can watch a complete video (long, in Cantonese) of the event here:

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Letter from Brazil: call for solidarity from CSP-Conlutas independent union federation

A call for international solidarity ahead of the World Cup from the CSP-Conlutas independent union federation in Brazil. IS Network and rs21 North London will also be hosting a joint meeting‘Kicking off in Rio: Popular Protest and the Politics of the World Cup’ on Tues 10th June, 7pm, Unity Church, 277 Upper Street, Islington, London.

On the Eve of the World Cup A Wave of Strikes Shake Brazil

It is time for strikes. After the huge mobilizations last June, primarily the youth, now it is the working class and they are shaking Brazilian cities.

In Sao Paulo, on May 15th, the city came to a halt. In the morning metalworker (engineering workers) strikes together with homeless movements (MTST and Ocupação Esperança) blocked avenues in the urban areas. In the city centre, metro (tube) workers demonstrated in the morning and municipal teachers demonstrated in the afternoon. Strikes and demos were the headlines in all media.

But the mobilizations are not limited to May 15th. Municipal teachers are holding demonstrations with thousands every week during the last 40 days. Bus drivers went on strike for two days against the mayor, the bus companies and their union, eventually bringing Sao Paulo to a halt. In Cubatão, a highly industrialized area in in Sao Paulo state, thousands of outsourced workers are on strike stopping sectors of the local Petrobras refinery. In Sao Jose dos Campos, engineering workers (General Motors) are holding stoppages. University employees, teachers and students of the University of São Paulo(USP), together with their counterparts in UNICAMP and UNESP universities, are on strike demanding more funding. On top of that, engineering workers are scheduled to go on strike next Thursday, June 5th.

In other capitals across Brazil, the situation is no different. In Rio de Janeiro teachers’ demonstrations and bus drivers stoppages combine and show the workers’ mood and strength. In others capitals, key sectors of the working class are on the offensive. Different sectors of federal public workers are going on strike. Even the police, both military and civil, are holding protests across the country.

The economic slowdown and high indebtness is changing the mood among working class families. There is a general feeling that things are not getting better. On top of that Brazilian government spent huge sums in the football world cup which is gathering general disapproval for the lack of funding for public education, healthcare and transport. The polls show that 55% of the Brazilian population believes that the world cup will be more of a burden than a benefit for working class people.

INTERNATIONAL SOLIDARITY TO THE STRUGGLES IN BRAZIL

Besides the current struggles – teachers, university employees, metalworkers, public workers, the police and homeless movements – the metroworkers of Sao Paulo might take action on June 5th and there will be a national day of mobilizations next June 12th when the World Cup starts.

We ask labor and youth movements across the world to express solidarity to Brazilian workers. Motions and demos will be warmly welcome. Advancing the workers struggles in Brazil will be an advancement for the working class worldwide.

Long live the workers struggles in Brazil!
Long live the International Solidarity among the working class!

Ideas and Arguments

Culture

Ben Watson: The culture question and the IS Network

Article published in the prototype issue of Cactus, 2013

Ben Watson calls for ‘cultural criticism’ that rejects reviewing the latest hits – and makes us feel alive

In thinking about ‛culture’, it does well to recall a statement Marx made in 1850. He was writing about the turbulent years in France after 1848, in an article for a political and economic review published in Hamburg, Neue Rheinische Zeitung (articles later published as Class Struggles in France 1848-1850). Describing the revolutionary socialist politics the bourgeois pundits of the time reviled as ‘Blanquism’, Marx wrote:

This socialism is the declaration of the permanence of the revolution, the class dictatorship of the proletariat as a necessary intermediate point on the path towards the abolition of class differences in general, the abolition of all relations of production on which they are based, the abolition of all social relations which correspond to these relations of production, and the revolutionising of all ideas which stem from these social relations.

The phrase which sticks in my mind is: “the revolutionising of all ideas which stem from these social relations”. For 25 years I was active in the Socialist Workers Party, opposing fascists and supporting strikes, but found that when I attempted to revolutionise cultural ideas which stem from capitalism – the commodification of art, the manufacture of stars, the workings of the culture industry, the plunder and reselling of heritage, the ideology that only money makes real – I met a barrage of objections. Not from comrades in my branch, who were invariably willing to listen to the insights I gleaned from Marx and Guy Debord and Theodor Adorno, but from ‘leading comrades’ whose opinions were ensconced in the pages of Socialist Review. Marxism was fine if it meant commitment to a complex theory which party experts could explain down to us, but if it became a method of improvising responses to cultural matters they didn’t already know about – a film by a new director, a performance by ‛unknown’ musicians, a self-published pamphlet of writing which struck me as extraordinary – then the smear-machine went into operation: ‛elitist’, ‛Proletkult’, ‛obscurantist’, ‛avantgarde’, ‛weird’, ‛idealist’, ‛eclectic’, ‛a diversion from the struggle’, ‛eccentric’, etc., etc.

So what I propose in this inaugural salvo concerning the IS Network’s ‛cultural’ coverage is a genuine application of Marx’s idea: to welcome any writing which revolutionises ideas stemming from capitalist social relations, and is predicated on abolishing class distinctions and privilege. The last time Marxist ideas became widely fashionable in Britain was 1968-72, so much so that academia developed a new discipline called ‛sociology’ to accommodate and (eventually) to defuse it. Left wing activists who could stomach bureaucratic day jobs found significant niches. Over time, and in the wake of significant defeats of the working class in the 1980s, sociology gradually sloughed off its Marxism – both the dialectic and the rhetoric – and instead embraced the methods and categories of market research. ‛Social class’ started to define an inert social layer, a set of people about whom generalisations could be made, one to be set alongside other categories beloved of market research – race, age and gender – or even omitted altogether. Too often, those who defined themselves as ‛socialists’ were influenced by these categories, so if I became excited by something which appeared to me to ‛revolutionise’ capitalist ideas, I’d be told I’d got the demographic wrong: ‛working class people’ do not like abstract art, or squeaky- bonk music, or experimental literature – even though the working class people around me were thoroughly entertained by such a ‛freak’ approach. I realised I was in a Trotskyist party with a Stalinist attitude towards artistic modernism – despite the fact that if you draw a graph of the peak moments for these outrageous practices (the 20s, the 60s), they correspond precisely to the periods when international capitalism was rocked by insurgent populations.

Should a publication aimed at working class readers only cover cultural products which are familiar to them from the ‛mass media’ or are endorsed by official institutions (an argument I met countless times trying to communicate some cultural enthusiasm via party publications)? If revolutionaries applied this attitude to their politics, they’d be committing suicide. Of course, social media available via the internet have already answered this question: freak culture is ubiquitous. Politically aware parents at my daughter’s primary school download Max Keiser’s tirades versus Goldman Sachs and Rupert Murdoch from YouTube before I can sell them a paper, and the passion and accuracy of this foaming investment adviser put the left to shame. The battles over what was allowed in party publications, the strategic importance of ‛the centre’ and its offset litho printer, is over – because new technology has found other ways of putting us all in touch. When Turkish prime minister Recep Erdogan says “Social media is the worst menace to society” he’s been outflanked by history.

“The revolution will not be televised, it will be tweeted,” said a placard hand-drawn in Istanbul during the mass demos of early June, and if you’re watching world events unfurl on social media, you have to agree. This is an internationalist urban politics Marx would recognise – a politics so revolutionary and total, the bourgeoisie find it hard to recognise as politics. It’s the opposite of some guy in a suit built up as an ‛expert’ by a TV channel like CNN, Al Jazeera or Press TV. Of course, I don’t think the Istanbul protesters will win if the mass of people ignore them and still go to work; on the other hand, if this kind of politics is rejected, no ‛Marxist’ sect is going to lead the working class to victory.

So why am I writing this article for a journal instead of just posting it online? Because there’s still a need for measured exposition of argument; well-edited sites and journals save us from the vanity, abuse and misinformation encountered elsewhere on the web; and it’s right for the IS Network to try and salvage a political tradition travestied by the blundering politics of an immobile bureaucratic leadership. But this kind of internet politics – peer-to-peer, grassroots, rank-and-file – demands in its turn a completely different approach to culture than that of either the capitalist mass media or the print-based left. For example, it is utterly pointless ‛reviewing’ major art exhibitions on a website when copyright considerations mean you cannot reproduce any images. All you provide is a pitch for wannabe ‛arts commentators’ with a lefty tinge – and a poor plug for the real thing. The internet means we can post the art we like directly on people’s screens. And that’s just what the IS Network should do.

Since Marcel Duchamp exhibited a urinal as art, it’s been demonstrated a thousand times that what demarcates post-war art as ‛art’ is power and money rather than any quality intrinsic to the art object. Up-to-date people know this. A large part of the humour in Iain Sinclair’s prose rests on the fact that the streets of London supply far more shocking and bizarre sights than anything served up in art galleries. Sinclair writes stunning art reviews…of charity shops and rubbish tips and choked canals. This irreverence isn’t some kind of ‛philistine’ lapse: it’s the starting point of a genuinely materialist approach to culture. Attention to personal aesthetic experience over and above art given a seal of approval by power and money. A revolutionary who hasn’t learned from Dada to trust their own reactions above authority is no revolutionary, and lags behind the mass of people in the world today.

The litmus test in all this has to be our attitude towards money. “Watch television, by all means…”, Frank Zappa told his children, “but always ask the question: how much is that guy being paid to say that?” In a draft for The Civil War in France (1871) reproduced in Eugene Gogol’s Towards a Dialectic of Philosophy and Organisation, Marx expressed equally ‘bad taste’ contempt for the Great and the Good. The great achievement of the Commune was that it shattered “the delusion that administration and political governing were mysteries, transcendent functions only to be trusted to the hands of a trained caste” (p. 84). “State parasites, richly-paid sycophants and sinecurists” were replaced by “removable servants … paid like skilled workmen twelve pounds a month … The whole sham of state mysteries and state pretensions was done away with by the Commune…all the posts hitherto divided between government, police and prefecture, now doing their work publicly, simply, under the most difficult and complicated circumstances, and doing it, as Milton did his Paradise Lost, for a few pounds.”

This is something like Jerry Hicks, in his recent electoral campaign for Unite general secretary, saying he’d take an average member’s wage to serve – and criticising the £2,000 a week Len McCluskey receives for the job. It demolishes the myth that top jobs are paid a ‛market’ rate. Marx’s reference to John Milton is apposite. Milton excoriated bishops who lived in palaces and said they should live in the same manner as their congregations. Literature has currently become so commodified that even the left consider ‛best sellers’ are worthy of attention in a way ‛worst sellers’ are not. But if you have grabbed somebody’s attention on a website or blog, or in the pages of a journal, you can tell your readers about anything – you do not have to worship the fetish of mega-sales which allows publishers to turn a buck. Those who believe only money makes real cannot grasp the social necessity which makes Paradise Lost a great work of art; nor can they understand how works of art can (and should) be measured by the ‛simple’ actions of a regular Communard, or a regular Unite grassroots activist. “Culture is the inversion of life,”proclaimed the Situationists. They were echoing Marx.

So a genuinely revolutionary cultural magazine would not curtsy before the ‛names’ which make up the current cultural fiasco, would not concede that money makes real, would refuse the left’s ‛sociological’ excuse for recycling news about best-selling drivel. It would seize on any writing or images or music which set us on fire, which make us feel alive, which gee us up to bring down capitalism. “Oh, you only want propaganda!” retorts the party hack, thinking thereby they’ve made a clever point. No, I want to save tradition from the conformism that threatens to overpower it; I want to read books which measure up to Milton, and music that measures up to Beethoven, and art that measures up to Kurt Schwitters. Culture that measures up to our activity as revolutionaries. I don’t want to read about Martin Amis!

A revolutionary cultural magazine would inscribe the words of William Blake over the desks of its editors in letters of flame:

Rouze up, O Young Men of the New Age! Set your foreheads against the ignorant Hirelings! For we have hirelings in the Camp, the Court & the University, who would, if they could, forever depress Mental & prolong Corporeal War. Painters, on you I call! Sculptors! Architects! Suffer not the fashionable Fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works or the expensive advertizing boasts that they make of such works” (Milton, 1808, Plate 2)

And if you respond by pointing out that Blake has only invoked men and missed out half the human race and so his words are profoundly reactionary, you have succumbed to identity politics and abandoned any historical imagination. You will only ever be led along by ‛correct’ postures made by slick politicians and wily liars. Blake was addressing the actualities of his time – paid artists were male – and he didn’t see this as a privilege to be coveted, but a betrayal of a human urge to create and communicate. His preface ends with the lyrics to ‛Jerusalem’ and a quote from the Bible: “Would to God all the Lord’s people were Prophets”. EP Thompson was correct: Blake was inspired by a radical democratic politics which had survived among London artisans since the English Civil War. Blake’s attack on Christianity’s denigration of sex would have to be the start of any politics for the emancipation of women.

As Alan Moore has pointed out, Blake was the first counter-culturalartist, pioneering the words-and-pictures mix of cosmology, politics and sex which has characterised all great popular comics since. Blake’s call to arms vanquishes at a stroke the pseudo-historical sophistication of the SWP’s John Molyneux, who points out that “art has always served the rich”; Blake was the harbinger of a new class with a new politics and new relationship to written and pictorial authority. Blake’s star rises whenever the left rises: in the 60s with Allen Ginsberg, in the early 80s with Jah Wobble and Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore. Witness of the birth of global capitalism – enclosures reducing self-sufficient peasants to landless wanderers, the noose for petty theft, deportation, the slave trade – reading Blake allows the modern revolutionary to draw breath, to understand that disgust with commercialism is not some kind of recent pose amongst avant hipsters, it’s part and parcel of revolutionary socialism. It’s a prophylactic against those who think you can sell socialism like double-glazing. The party managed like a call centre. Such ‛realistic operators’ will either dismiss Blake as a ‛mystic’, or honour him (falsely) as a ‛great artist’ whose achievements we should ‛admire’. At a distance. We shouldn’t: Blake’s great because he measures up to us, to the spirit of working class firebrands on Facebook like Paz Thompson or Paul Furness or Sharon Borthwick or Paul Seacroft (who they? not party hacks, for sure…get on Facebook and find out). When Tom Paine, author of The Rights of Man, came to London, he stayed with William Blake.

Nothing stands still. The Russian Revolution of 1917 turned into its opposite, Stalinism, and sabotaged revolutions all round the world. In the post-war period, the artistic revolt of the 1920s and 1930s became a commodity shaped by a succession of empty fashions – Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Op Art, Conceptual Art, Fluxus, Postmodernism. When Maurice Saatchi curated Sensation! in 1997, an advertising mogul who’d worked for Margaret Thatcher’s re-election found that Dada techniques of shock and contempt could serve Tories and high finance. Young British Art: a slew of useless celebrities was born. Some Trotskyist sects, echoing the Stalinist positions they claim to criticise, saw this as proving the ‛decadent’ nature of Modern Art, something all true proletarians should reject. The point is that the anti-capitalist, anti-hireling nature of true expression had migrated into other forms than ‛art’.

The commodity relation is inimical to our species-being and denies our natural feelings for others, which have to be suppressed in favour of an abstraction called ‛self’ – realising true art in the money environment is like growing a watermelon in Easter hay, impossible. Peter Brötzmann and Alan Wilkinson, two saxophonists who reconfigure your experience of music into something like a primal animal reaction, both began as fine artists, but could not perform the ‛tame bear’ shtick of being an ‛absolute rebel’ who obediently cranks out objects for the rich to buy; so Brötzmann and Wilkinson became minor figures in the world ‛jazz’ scene instead — until you see them live, in which case they become something as overpowering and inspiring as Blake.

The argument between true expression and money is vast, highly detailed and intricate. I have never met two people who deal with it quite the same way – whether they’re artists or simply (simply!) people selling their labour power. The problem ‛artists’ face is the same thing we all face: we’re doing something useful (hopefully), but the money-relation doesn’t reflect that, it reflects our ability to create surplus value for an employer. Culture is the royal road to discussing this predicament, detailing nuances that reflect every fibre of our being. If cultural criticism is worth doing, it’s because it bravely flies in the face of cultural authority and sales figures – i.e. ourselves considered as a mere means for the accumulation of capital – and dares to articulate our initial, truthful subjective reaction before it has been dominated by concepts (or ‛political correctness’). A recipe for utter subjectivism, anarchist relativism, nihilistic solipsism? No, because our collective political practice and our commitment to historical materialism allow us to unpick our personal reactions and explain them as responses to the unchosen circumstances in which we make history.

So what should ‛cultural criticism’ in an IS Network journal look like? A sharing of hitherto unspoken truths. Recommending the purchase of one commodity over others, on the other hand, is not an activity worthy of socialists. Like free-improvising saxophonist and community-activist Jack Wright, revolutionaries should reject the culture-industry’s racket, and feel free to point out they get hold of their music via CD-R copies or downloads or library loans or second-hand. Or at a local pub or church. Or playing with friends. The whole idea of ‛covering new product’ is work foisted on us by sharks trying to make money out of our attempts to create life-changing situations. An excited post by someone who’s just discovered Etta James or Archie Shepp or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is worth a thousand ho-hum reviews of some duff celebrity’s latest album. The person who replies to the question “What music do you like?” by saying “Oh, I haven’t bought a CD for ages” is suffering from the worstest of curses. Conversely, there’s no safe haven from the commodity, no zone of worthy culture untainted by the problematic. Worthwhile pop music tackles this issue head on. Despite the airs put on by its consumers, the refusal of ‛Classical Music’ to recognise commodification makes it indescribably more stupid. The only answer is to criticise commodification from the point of view of the worker, ie., someone whose very life essence, their labour power, is treated as a commodity by capital. How do you get by yourself? The IS Network should like to hear from you.

Thanks to Keith Fisher, Daphne Lawless, Esther Leslie and Andy Wilson for suggestions. Ben Watson is a member of the Association of Musical Marxists and broadcasts a radio show on Resonance 104.4FM every Wednesday at 2pm.

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Review: Orgreave: an English civil war

‘Orgreave: an English Civil War’, a production of Northern Lines, written and directed by Javaad Alipoor, reviewed by Brian Collier.


Well, the title tells you what it is about and the perspective taken, so I don’t need to go into much background detail. It was done in a small venue, Bradford’s ‘The Theatre in the Mill’, which seated about a hundred people around the acting area. Yet we were all still in the acting area, because on three sides of the room were projected iconic pictures of Orgreave: the miner with the joke policeman’s helmet, the woman apparently about to be hit by a mounted copper’s baton (she was on Woman’s Hour last week and she said that she was pulled out of the way just in time) and many others. The walls were covered by chalkboards with slogans and information graffitied onto them; the floor was radially marked by fragments from one of Javaad’s poems about Orgreave.

The scenery was sparse and merely made use of a series of boxes and shapes that were rearranged to form a living room, the House of Commons, the cabinet room, a Miners’ Welfare and the field of Orgreave itself. These boxes themselves had extracts from papers of the time printed upon them; there was no escape from the truth all this seemed to be saying.

The cast were a joy, amateurs all and disdainful of divisions of ethnicity or gender; Asians played white characters and women played men, any deficiencies of technique (few) were made up for by natural flair and energy, commitment and enthusiasm. The young Asian woman who played Thatcher, for instance, had her to a ‘T’, she needed no wig and didn’t need to try and ape that awful voice to convey the appalling arrogance and sinister disdain for democracy of the woman; just seeing and hearing her brought everything back and made me shiver.

The central character of the play in many ways was ‘Mr. Crossley’, the policeman who liaises between Special Branch and Special Forces, who had developed his techniques in Belfast, Derry, Oman, Toxteth and Brixton and was sent specifically to sort out the miners in South Yorkshire. He was played by David J. Peel, a prominent local community actor who was described in the programme as ‘actor/facilitator’, and it was a performance of much power.

Before going on to say something about the play itself, I must congratulate Javaad and his collaborators on their choice of soundtrack, comprising many songs that were used during the miners’ strike itself and others that commented upon it. One that became very important in the play was ‘Only You’ by the Flying Pickets, which David Peel himself sang during the portrayal of the ‘battle of Orgreave’ to great ironic and dramatic effect.

The play itself had at its centre a family in a mining village near Rotherham: Steve, his wife Pat (who was pregnant at the beginning of the play) and Steve’s brother Barry, who has become a policeman. The action shifts between 1984 and 2014; in the latter date Steve has died from a mining-related lung disease and Pat has become an FE lecturer. Their daughter Lisa and her friend Roman (who is the daughter of a policeman who made a lot of money out of the strike) are trying to find out what went on, but no one seems to want to talk about it. Back in 1984 Steve, initially very enthusiastic about the strike and its prospects, gradually, after many beatings and defeats on the picket line, is becoming disillusioned and is thinking of scabbing; Pat says that she’ll leave him if he does that.

Pat has become politicised and is very active in Women Against Pit Closures; she gives a very inspiring speech at the Miners’ Welfare, the miners having marched in singing ‘I’d rather be a picket than a scab’. Pat tells them of meeting women from Northern Ireland who had been protesting for human rights. ‘This is a human rights issue’, she says. The miners cheer. Steve goes to the meeting and Pat embraces him, he’s staying out!

Then there is the ‘battle’ of Orgreave and its aftermath. The first half of the play ends with Orgreave, and the way it’s portrayed with Crossley winding up the coppers and telling them what to do and how to forge statements, and then the policemen beating their shields with batons and stamping their feet was genuinely intimidating, even though you knew it was all just a part of the drama. I was on picket lines in 1984 and 1985 at Bold pit near St Helens in Lancashire (nowhere near like Orgreave) and it brought back the fear.

Steve disowns Barry because he’s a policeman, even though Barry resigns from the force. Thirty years later Barry turns up and expects to be welcomed with open arms. Pat and Lisa reject him, thus the play eschews some easy sentimentality. Scars remain unhealed. Crossley ends up in Bahrain, advising the authoritarian government there on counter insurgency.

This was a very powerful play. The actors were so committed and so powerful, playing against stereotype and making the public feel with them. I was moved almost to tears more than once and felt bitter anger quite a lot of the time. It was a brilliant example of how to present politics without overt politics being rammed down your throat. There was a fantastic ovation at the end.

After the play a former miner (accidentally portrayed in the play’s poster!) gave us a talk about what the strike felt like and how the campaign for justice was going, inspired by the Liverpool FC’s fans campaign over Hillsborough. The IPCC are inevitably dragging their feet, but he is hopeful that justice may be done in the end. I don’t know if this play will ever be produced again, but it should be and if it is go and see it. Javaad is an ISN comrade and a rare talent. He has another play, Hurr, produced at the same venue in mid July. I’m going to see that! Come if you can!

See the Orgreave Truth and Justice Campaign website for more information and events.

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Review: Return to Homs – the capital of Syria’s revolution destroyed

Return to Homs – the capital of Syria’s revolution destroyed

Directed by Talal Derki

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Return to Homs was screened by Human Rights Watch on 28 March, followed by a Q&A with the producer Orwa Nyrabia.

The story told by Return to Homs is the story of the Syrian Revolution – from its start as peaceful protests against the Assad regime calling for reform, through the vicious repression of those protests and the ensuing militarisation of the revolution, to the present-day state of siege and total destruction of the country at the hands of the dictatorship.

The documentary, entirely filmed and directed by Syrians, is not the first to be produced by revolutionaries, but it is the first to receive widespread circulation across the world. It was filmed over two years from August 2011 to August 2013 as the revolution developed from peaceful protests into armed resistance.

The film tells the story of the revolution through the friendship of two young men from Homs, Abdul Basset Saroot and Ossama Al Homsi. Before the revolution began, Basset was the second best goalkeeper in Syria, touted for the national team. When the protests began they both joined the revolt, Basset leading the crowd with chants and songs against the regime, while Ossama became a media activist filming the protests and demonstrations.

The first scenes are a testimony to the genuinely popular character of Syria’s revolution. We see crowds of thousands in the streets, singing and dancing for freedom and against oppression. Basset’s popularity and charisma are evident as thousands join him in song, and he is cheered and hoisted onto the shoulders of protesters wherever he goes.

The film is remarkable for its view inside the revolution. The footage of peaceful protests is interspersed with footage from the activists’ safe house where they upload videos, discuss the situation, give interviews to foreign journalists and sing songs against Assad. Basset rails against the regime, its violence and oppression and unwillingness to concede. We see the transformation of peaceful protesters into armed resistance fighters. As the violence against protesters mounts, the activists no longer wield just laptops and cameras, but AK-47s and pistols as well. Crowds no longer throng the streets, driven away by snipers and bombs. Instead they hold funeral marches for those martyred by the regime.

The resilience of the Syrian people is shown throughout. At one point the regime builds a barrier over the only road joining two pro-revolution districts in Homs, trying to prevent activists and supplies spreading between them. One of the media activists filming the scene remarks, “They don’t know who they’re messing with,” as a truck proceeds to drive over the barrier, and local youth on bicycles dig up the barrier with their bare hands, only stopping when they come under sniper fire.

The footage captures the desperation and isolation of the revolution as the repression mounts. Neighbourhoods are reduced to rubble, and Basset and his militia are forced to crawl house to house, waging a guerrilla war against the Syrian army’s superior firepower and aerial bombardment. Their isolation in their liberated districts, under siege and alone, reflects that of the revolution internationally.

During this Basset continues to sing and inspire those around him. His determination is phenomenal. Looking out over part of Homs completely reduced to rubble, he is asked: do you think victory is possible? Gazing out at his destroyed city, at miles and miles of destruction, he pauses for a moment, then comes the firm reply: “Yes, we will make them hate their lives, then they will leave.”

Death is frequent in the fighting. Many are injured, including Basset and Ossama. Ossama appears more visibly traumatised by his ordeal, but all the young men are affected. Despair and desperation creep in, how can it not. They have gone from being labourers, blacksmiths, factory workers, teachers and footballers, to fighting one of the most brutal and totalitarian regimes of the modern age, with a massive imbalance in firepower and support. And yet they keep fighting. And singing.

Basset is still in Homs. Still fighting under siege. Still trying to liberate his country. Orwa Nyrabia, the film’s producer, commented after the film screening, “There is a Basset in every town in Syria. I speak to many of them regularly, but the media does not talk to them or about them.” Orwa stated the mainstream narrative, that it is the regime versus Islamic fighters, is false, that the vast majority of those fighting are moderates, but they receive little or no coverage. This must change. But it will require action, action which has not been taken by many.

Orwa remarked during the Q&A, “When the West threatened to attack the Assad regime, which did not actually happen, tens of thousands marched around the world. When the regime used gas on Ghouta, and killed 1,500 people, not a single march was held anywhere.” Alongside the brutality of the regime, this memory will linger for a long time, the lack of aid given by much of humanity and its progressive forces to the Syrian people.

All progressive and anti-war activists must feel a deep shame at the lack of support for the Syrian Revolution which has left it isolated and battling the world superpowers alone. This feeling should be used to motivate, not as an excuse to ignore what is happening. There is much we can do, if we are willing to spend the energy.

The Syria Solidarity Movement is a new organisation formed to provide political and practical solidarity to the Syrian Revolution. Join it and get involved in its activities. The next action will be a global protest at the BBC on 10 May over its biased coverage of the Syrian Revolution.

Hand in Hand for Syria (HIHS) is a registered UK charity which provides humanitarian aid to refugees and those in the liberated areas of Syria. HIHS runs bakeries and hospitals and provides necessities to those in refugee camps. You can just make a donation, but Syria needs long-term commitment. Get involved in one of their regular Big Aid Drops by hosting a collection point in your area, or organising a collection in your workplace to take to one of the collection points.

If you’re an Arabic speaker and have practical skills, consider joining one of the aid convoysorganised by One Nation UK. They deliver aid, medical supplies and ambulances to Syria on a regular basis.

For another view of the revolution in Homs, watch this Panorama documentary ‘Homs, Journey into Hell’.

Ideas and Arguments

Organisation

Report: Revolutionary unity – how?

On Saturday 26 April, members of the International Socialist Network, revolutionary socialism in the 21st century, Socialist Resistance, Anticapitalist Initiative and Workers Power met to discuss a number of questions facing the revolutionary left. The day was divided into four topics – trade unionism, Left Unity, feminism and Ukraine. Despite there being sharp disagreements between many of the organisations on all these questions, the tone of the day was comradely and the manner in which the debates were conducted was positive. It is clear that divisions, most obviously between comrades in Socialist Resistance and Workers Power, are not going to disappear overnight, but hopefully continued discussion and joint activity will help break down artificial divisions on the revolutionary left and help us towards a new united organisation in the future. One of the reasons that the IS Network believes that this meeting should be the beginning of the process, rather than launching into immediate organisational unity as was proposed at our conference last year, is exactly because we feel that unity on a firm political basis, which in our view is a prerequisite for serious organisational unity; can only be achieved through a process of ongoing discussion and activity.

Trade unions

The first session was on the question of how revolutionary socialists should work within the trade union movement. In the bulletins which preceded the meeting, there had been a debate as to how revolutionaries should relate to the trade union bureaucracy, and whether they should be concentrating on building within the rank and file of the trade unions. This debate was reflected in the meeting, with comrades from Socialist Resistance arguing that the level of struggle and organisation in the class isn’t such that building a new rank and file movement is possible at this time, and furthermore that there is a clear distinction between right wing union leaderships and the left, such as Christine Blower in the NUT and Mark Serwotka in the PCS, who they referred to as “class struggle” union leaders. They also argued of the dangers of seeing the working class as poised for action, and only held back by the trade union bureaucracy. It has to be recognised that there is a dynamic relationship between the rank and file and the union bureaucracy, and union leaders cannot be held entirely responsible for the weaknesses of the movement. However, it was recognised that union leaders, particularly right wing union leaders, have a lot to answer for in terms of weaknesses of the movement and the failure of any serious fightback against austerity to materialise. While Socialist Resistance do not overestimate the mood of the workers to fight, they clearly have a tendency to go in the other direction, towards a certain pessimism with regard to workers, which can lead to conservatism. Their opinion, not at all unfounded, that the building of a rank and file movement is unfeasible at this time leads them towards arguing for reliance upon alliances with the left wing of the trade union bureaucracy , which in turn can lead to a tendency to apologise for the actions of some of the trade union leaders. This was most obviously displayed in discussion about the role of the leadership of the NUT. In the tradition of left wing meetings, there were many teachers present on Saturday. Some, mostly members of the IS Network, Anticapitalist Initiative and Workers Power, pointed out the failure of the “broad left” strategy of alliances with the left wing bureaucracy in the case of the NUT. This was argued against by Socialist Resistance members, who argued that the NUT had a “class struggle” leadership.

Socialist Resistance comrades were clearly the minority during this debate, with most others arguing for a rank and file, rather than a broad left approach to trade unionism. Workers Power members argued that the “crisis of leadership” in the movement was not just restricted to the top layers of the trade union bureaucracy, but rather was evident top to bottom. While we should work both with and against the bureaucracy, our focus should be on organising within the workplace. Similar arguments were made by IS Network members, who also countered the argument made by some in Socialist Resistance that a rank and file analysis meant viewing the working class as poised for radical action, but held back by the conservatism of the trade union bureaucracy. Both the view that the trade union bureaucracy needed to be replaced by the leadership of a revolutionary party, and that the right wing of the bureaucracy needed replacing by left wing, or “class struggle” bureaucrats, both fall into the same mistake of seeing the working class as an amorphous mass in need of proper leadership. The rs21 speaker focused on the failure of the left over recent years to correctly analyse what was happening in capitalism and the working class, and therefore failing to understand the “nature of the period”. The onus was on socialists to correct this, and work out a perspective for how to organise. Other rs21 members who contributed supported the argument for a rank and file approach to trade unionism.

There were some highlights of this session, which were when comrades in the meeting discussed real examples of rank and file activity they had engaged in. The IS Network lead speaker spoke of the contrast in her workplace, Tower Hamlets College, between an all-out strike led by the rank and file, and the bureaucratic one-day strike over pensions in 2011. The former won, the latter lost. Another member of the IS Network spoke of how members in his workplace defeated the imposition of performance-related pay by boycotting assessments. Another highlight was a comrade from rs21, a militant member of Unite, discussing his direct experience of Grangemouth oil refinery, its long history of militancy and potential power, and how the role of the “left” leadership of Unite was crucial to their recent defeat. Overall, this discussion was extremely positive, and Socialist Resistance members should be commended for how they comported themselves considering they were in a clear minority on this question. The discussion would have benefited, however, from Socialist Resistance members highlighting the rank and file work which they do in fact carry out. While they disagreed with many people in the meeting on any number of issues regarding the trade union bureaucracy, Socialist Resistance comrades are active in workplaces and their members have a good history of rank and file organisation. Also, an unfortunate false polarity developed, where a perception was of what a rank and file strategy was – where workers were poised for action and the main obstruction was the trade union bureaucracy – was argued against as opposed to what comrades in favour of the strategy were actually arguing.

Left Unity

The session discussing Left Unity was less interesting than any of the others. This may be because views generally on this subject are less well established – Left Unity has existed for about a year, while trade unions have existed for a couple of centuries – and therefore, the position tended to be divided between “optimism” and “suspicion” rather than anything more concrete. An issue which was present during the discussion on trade unionism came more to the fore in this discussion, which was it felt like comrades from Workers Power and Socialist Resistance to argue with each other over everyone else’s head. Another reason why the Left Unity debate was less useful than the others was probably the number of straw men which were constructed. The polarity, it was maintained by Socialist Resistance, and one IS Network member, was between those who wanted Left Unity to adopt a “maximalist” programme – as in, they want Left Unity to be a revolutionary party. This was not the position of Workers Power, or any others, who tended to argue that revolutionaries in Left Unity should be seeking to pull its members leftwards, rather than pursue them rightwards.

Socialist Resistance members argued that the left was not in a position to build a revolutionary party at this moment, and all that was possible given the current conditions was to build a united left organisation which did not alienate those to the right of the far left. Once a broad left organisation such as Left Unity was built and the left as a whole was able to grow, we would be able to concentrate on winning people to revolutionary politics. The key task at the moment was to build Left Unity. While the lead speaker for Socialist Resistance claimed this was not a “stagist” perspective, where we first win people to more left wing politics generally, and from that pull people to revolutionary politics in the long term, it certainly seemed that way. He himself argued that it was a “step by step process”. Workers Power, on the other hand, argued that the revolutionary left should be concentrating on building a revolutionary current organisation rather than moving to the right to accommodate reformism. IS Network members tended to argue for the need for all revolutionaries, whatever their perspective on these questions, to join and help build Left unity, as it is one of the most important initiatives currently being built on the left. rs21 members did not have a position on Left Unity, though most tended to be less involved in the organisation than members of other groups. They therefore tended to ask questions in the meeting, rather than make arguments one way or the other, such as whether Left Unity would always be the best vehicle for every issue, such as within the trade union movement.

Feminism

In the session discussing feminism the debate centred on two key issues, one was the role of feminist theories and intersectionality in the movement, and whether they can be incorporated, or have a positive relationship with Marxism. The other was how to increase women’s participation in the left generally and our own organisations in particular. Workers Power maintained that Marxists should reject identity politics, such as feminism and intersectionality, as they do not accept that the fundamental oppression which cuts across all other modes of oppression is that of class. They argued in favour of a “working class women’s movement”. Women are some of the most exploited in society – austerity, for instance, is disproportionately effecting women. Building a women’s movement based on working class women self-organising is what is needed to combat this. Socialist Resistance, on the other hand, have incorporated feminism into their own theory, and argue that while Marxism has effectively analysed class exploitation, we need other theories, such as feminism, to explain other forms of exploitation, such as the oppression of women. rs21 were clearly divided on the question of intersectionality. Their lead speaker argued that intersectionality views class as just one of several oppressions, which is a break from Marxism. Other rs21 members, however, argue, as others do in the IS Network, that it instead simply acknowledges that how people experience oppression is effected by the various forms of oppression they either experience or do not.

There was also an important discussion about how to increase women’s participation in left organisations. The lead speaker from the IS Network pointed out the dominant role men played on the left in general, including in this meeting. She pointed out how women’s self-organisation, through initiatives such as independent publications and caucuses could help overcome this. Women often feel unable to contribute and participate on the left due to the socialisation of women which can lead to less confidence in such situations. Both Workers Power and Socialist Resistance have, for a long time, supported self-organised women’s groups, while rs21 members remain in many instances sceptical.

Ukraine

The meeting on the crisis in Ukraine wasn’t the “bloodbath”, as one rs21 member put it, that everyone was expecting, and was actually conducted very fraternally. On this issue, it tended to be Workers Power who were in the minority. Workers Power’s main focus was on the fascist and far-right nationalist influence over the Maidan protests and the government they installed, and the role of US and EU imperialism in supporting them. The role of fascists in the Kiev government, and their increasing integration into the state apparatus means that the main role of socialists should be to call for its overthrow. Socialist Resistance and rs21 members tended to emphasise the progressive elements of the Maidan movement, and argue that the turn towards the EU was largely a democratic demand, based upon the Ukrainian people’s desire to break from Russian imperialism. This tended to be supported by IS Network members, who, however, also tended to argue that the reactionary nature of the Kiev government shouldn’t be underplayed, and that it should be opposed. IS Network members also highlighted the political bankruptcy of the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition’s position, both on Ukraine, and the Syrian revolution, and argued that a new anti-imperialist movement needed to be built.

Overall, the discussions were very useful, and actually showed that such debates can in fact be productive when they rise above the usual tit-for-tat polemics, and comrades actually engage with each other’s views. One problem, which was present throughout the day, was the dominant role men, particularly white, non-LGBTQ men, played in the discussions. In the last session on Ukraine, no women spoke at all, and it was only in the session on feminism where women were at least 50% of the contributors. These issues are not unusual to the groups involved in these discussions – this is common throughout the left. However, in light of recent problems on the far left with sexism it is something that the left will need to get much better at in future, both in getting more women involved in revolutionary politics, and in encouraging them to be more prominent in meetings such as the ones we held on Saturday.

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Northern unity meeting 1 February

On 1 February there will be a northern unity meeting co-organised by the IS Network with Anti-Capitalist Initiative, Socialist Resistance and Workers Power. Observers from RS21 are also to be invited.

EVENT DETAILS

Date: Saturday 1 February 2014

Venue: Collier Room, Central Methodist Hall, Oldham Street, Manchester M1 1JQ

PROPOSED AGENDA

1000-1100: Registration and informal meet-up
1100-1230: Introductions plus reports (Leeds to Chair)
1230-1330: Lunch
1330-1500: State of the labour movement: Andy S (Sheffield) to introduce (Manchester to Chair)
1500-1530: Break
1530-1700: Practical discussion, how we can work together, common campaigns, future meeting and taking revolutionary unity forward (Sheffield to Chair)

Childcare will be available if needed, provided on a volunteer basis.

Refreshments will be made available.

There will be a pooled fare for the day

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Portsmouth Socialist Network: Moving forward after December

On Tuesday 7 January ten comrades (another three who wanted to attend sent apologies) who were formerly members of the Portsmouth SWP branch met to discuss joint activity. It included comrades who had resigned immediately after Special Conference last March and joined the IS Network, people who had left during the course of last year but joined nothing, and those who had left after last month’s conference. A well-respected local socialist who had been in the International Socialists in the 1970s and is currently in the Anti-Capitalist Initiative also sent apologies saying they would be like to be involved in future events.

Despite some tactical disagreements over the past nine months, we had been united in our opposition to the appalling actions of the SWP Central Committee and were clear that the current crisis of the SWP is a (particularly horrific) symptom of long-term problems surrounding lack of democracy and bureaucratisation. We stayed in close contact over the last year and had been active together in local anti-fascist activity.

As one attendee put it, ‘all of the people who have left the SWP over the last twelve months need to sit in the same room and discuss in an honest and comradely way what we are going to do’. It is clear that we can achieve very little working separately or in competition with each other. After all we are all still revolutionaries committed to socialism from below. It was agreed that the formation of a new revolutionary organisation is the central long-term goal but what that should look like and how we should organise should be developed by collaboration in localities. Political differences on secondary questions should not necessarily preclude organisational unity. It was generally agreed that the revolutionary regroupment process was a big step forward for the far left.

By unanimous vote it was decided to constitute ourselves as Portsmouth Socialist Network. By working together as a loose network we can approach other groups and propose joint work, visit picket lines to offer our collective solidarity and produce leaflets or a newsletter. We agreed that individual membership of other groups is not problematic but we didn’t preclude a collective affiliation to a national organisation in the future.

We discussed ideas such as the formation of a local ‘radical forum’ where socialists, anarchists and others on the left and in the workers’ movement can discuss strategies, the possibility of a joint meeting with our friends in Hampshire Feminist Collective and becoming more involved with an anti-fracking campaign two comrades are helping with at a location just north of the city. Some members have been attending meetings of the local Anti-Fascist Network grouping – Portsmouth has had a continuing problem with racist intimidation around a mosque and Muslim school – and we are clear that countering the far right is a key priority locally.

It is very positive that ex-SWP members and other socialists who are attracted to the regroupment process are organising similar events in a number of other cities. As for ourselves, it is a very exciting development for us in Portsmouth and we are cautiously optimistic about organising locally on this basis.

Ideas and Arguments

Students

Defend Education Birmingham: Statement on the Occupation

We are occupying a large part of the Aston Webb Building, which includes the Vice-Chancellor’s and Senior Management’s offices, Telecommunications and the Senate Chamber in order to demand the right to free education, to protest and to housing. We are here in defiance of management’s tactics to try to suppress student protest through the use of disciplinaries, suspensions and injunctions. The areas we are occupying also play a key role in the corporatisation of our university which sees power concentrated in the hands of the few, education treated as a commodity and our institution become more like a business.

We condemn the university management for the actions they have taken against the right to protest and the suspension of Kelly Rogers and Simon Furse. All people should be able to freely express their discontent and students are no exception. The university is supposed to be a stronghold for free-speech and dissent. However, is it clear that the University of Birmingham does not recognise this human right and actively seeks to curtail it.

Yesterday, Kelly and Simon were supposed to have their appeal. Despite its postponement, we wanted to make it clear that we have not forgotten this injustice. Their case is an example of the extreme victimisation that this university will deploy in order to crush its student body. They were both singled out against a backdrop of nationwide occupations and are the only students in the country to have been suspended for 9 months since before 2010. Only Kelly and Simon were suspended despite a hundred or so other students also being involved. A third student, Hattie Craig, is not allowed to break any university regulation under threat of suspension for 6 months. The university is trying to make an example of them to intimidate other students by punishing them. This behaviour is a draconian response to an otherwise peaceful protest. This affront to democracy puts the University of Birmingham to shame and we will not let them succeed in preventing students from protesting for a better, fairer education for all.

We advocate for an education system which is free, democratic and accessible. As it stands, even basic rights like that to education, housing and protest are not being met. As such, we demand:

1. That David Eastwood and the University of Birmingham should publicly take back their position that fees should be increased and that bursaries should be cut. Instead, they should lobby the government for education to be free, and for the implementation of living grants

2. That a body should be set up made up of elected students, academic staff, and support staff. This should have ultimate oversight over the restructuring of departments, the University’s investment decisions, and its lobbying positions

3. That every student is offered accommodation which does not exceed the amount they receive in loans and grants

4. That the university does not make a profit (or “surplus”) from the fees it charges for accommodation

5. The reinstatement of Simon Furse and Kelly Rogers

6. The lifting of the onerous and inhibitive restrictions on Hattie Craig

7. That the University recognises occupations as a legitimate form of protest, with a long and illustrious history

8. That the University reforms its disciplinary procedures to include sentencing guidelines, a right for students to receive legal representation and a requirement that allegations be proved beyond reasonable doubt, instead of on the balance of probabilities

Students at the University of Birmingham are in occupation

STUDENT ACTIVISTS OCCUPY BUILDING AT THE UNIVERSITY OF BIRMINGHAM


The students have issued the following demands:

  1. That Kelly Rogers and Simon Furse are reinstated with immediate effect, with no further sanctions applied.
  2. That Hattie Craig has the onerous and inhibitive restrictions on her activity at the University of Birmingham lifted, with no further sanctions applied.
  3. That the University of Birmingham recognises occupations as a legitimate form of protest, with a long and lustrous history, that should be accommodated by its Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech.
  4. That the University of Birmingham reforms its disciplinary procedures to include: the right for students to receive legal representation, criteria of proven beyond reasonable doubt instead of the balance of probabilities, and sentencing guidelines. Additionally they should remove the following unacceptably ambiguous disciplinary violations: (g) misuse or unauthorised use of university premises, (q) bringing the university into disrepute, and (m) leafleting.
  5. That the University enters into negotiations in good faith with Defend Education Birmingham over its continuing demands.

This protest follows the crackdown on student dissent seen not just in Birmingham but nationwide.  Two Birmingham students, Simon Furse and Kelly Rogers, were suspended last week for their alleged roles in an occupation of the Senate Chamber.  The same nine month long disciplinary process imposed a sixth month suspended sentence to former Guild Vice President Education Hattie Craig. This effectively bans her from exercising her democratic right to dissent on campus. This year at the University of Birmingham, there have been two occupations with similar demands, centring around the Living Wage for cleaners – which has now been won – and the privatisation of the university.

Cracking down on students is nothing new at Birmingham: at a demonstration on January 29, hundreds of protesters from across the country were kettled by police and university security for a several hours in freezing conditions. A number were arrested and held for more than 24 hours in custody and then placed on bail conditions which prevented them from attending university or associating with fellow student activists. The University then suspended six of the arrested protesters with no process or right of appeal, though they were later reinstated.

One of the occupiers commented: “Universities have historically been radical places where learning and dissent went hand in hand. Our higher education system is so far removed from this that universities have become nothing more than paper-pushing, draconian institutions that care nothing for the welfare of their students.” Another said, “Simon, Kelly and Hattie are being persecuted for exercising their rights to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech; we have to act before this becomes the norm not just in Birmingham, but nationwide.”

Twitter: @DefendEdBrum, Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/defendeducationbrum

Ideas and Arguments

Environment

“Comrades, we need to change”: report from the Ecosocialism: Fracking, Climate and Revolution conference

This conference was held under the auspices of Socialist Resistance (SR) and Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century (rs21) and was a model of revolutionary cooperation on the ground. It consisted of opening and closing plenaries, with two sessions of four simultaneous workshops either side of (a rather late) lunch. There was a good variety of speakers on offer from the two sponsoring organisations, obviously, but also from the Oxford University Fossil Fuel Disinvestment Campaign, the Green Party, Left Unity, Biofuel Watch, the Front de Gauche, Grandparents’ Climate Action, PCS, Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise, Frack-Off Manchester, Fuel Poverty Action, Green Left and the Campaign against Climate Change. John McDonnell MP also spoke. It is notable that no one from the International Socialist Network was invited to speak (although I was invited to chair a workshop) and that we were not seriously considered to co-host the conference, despite our longstanding friendly relations with SR. I am sure that this is because we are not considered to have a serious enough commitment to the protection of the environment and especially opposition to climate change. SR have ecosocialism at the heart of their politics and, by the evidence of this conference, there are a large number of rs21 comrades who are passionately committed to this idea, even if they may not use the word ‘ecosocialism’. As catastrophic climate change is the most important issue that the world (and therefore the left) faces in the next 50 years we need to get our act together.

The first speaker in the opening plenary was Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party. She is a very impressive speaker and is definitely on the radical socialist wing of her party. She began by affirming that climate change is the most pressing item on the agenda for any progressive party, but for the most part emphasised her party’s social agenda, saying that our immediate demands should be the implementation of the living wage for all, the renationalisation of the railways and utilities and the defence of the NHS from privatisation. She went on to outline what should be the next steps, firstly the idea of a basic income, which people would get whether in work or not.The first and one of the most important effects of this would be ‘freedom from fear’; working people would not wake up every morning and feel that their jobs (and therefore their homes and the living standards of themselves, their partners and their children) were under threat, leading to a great improvement in the mental health of the nation. It would change wage differentials, as unpopular jobs would not be filled unless they were well paid; she used the example that this might lead to sewer cleaners being paid more than bankers, for example! And it would lead to a big impact upon working hours as people might not choose to work long and anti-social hours if they got a basic income anyway. Which leads us on to her final social point, the gradual progress towards the 21-hour working week (as posited by the New Economics Foundation), which would solve unemployment at a stroke. All these things would lead to a new kind of society that would use less energy, would lead us to want fewer useless consumer goods (because our wants for self-fulfilment would be satisfied in other ways). At the moment we in Britain consume such that, if it were replicated worldwide, we would need three planets to provide the resources (as for the US, don’t ask).Her message was: ‘Be radical, think big!’ A case of the Green talking ‘red’ here, definitely.

Alan Thornett was the next speaker and he did not disappoint, despite having woken up that morning with a problem with his voice. I have been an admirer of him since my schooldays, and I’m now 61! He said that he was pleased that the two organisations were collaborating on such an important issue and that he thought that the event title was very ambitious. His contribution (which was in lieu of Daniel Tanuro, author of Green Capitalism: Why It Can’t Work, who had to pull out due to family commitments), focused on the question of where ecology stands in the struggle for socialist revolution.

He started off by saying that the science on climate change is now so conclusive that even the BBC probably won’t have Nigel Lawson on any more! But this is no time for levity, we need to look at what’s happening. We are approaching the ‘climate cliff’; this is 2°C in average warming over the entire world, which will have bad consequences in itself; any more than that, say to 4°Cand all bets are off. There are tipping points, such as the melting of the West Antarctic ice shelf, which may take up to a thousand years, but could happen in the next century. This will lead to a rise in sea level of somewhere up to nine metres. It’s going to happen unless something drastic is done. Then there is extreme weather, such as Super Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines earlier this year; you can’t blame any single weather event on the warming of the planet, but these things are statistically going to get more common. Ten years ago a tropical storm (‘Vince’) crossed the Atlantic and made landfall in Europe for the first time ever, in Spain. In 2003 a hurricane called Catriona (no relation to Katrina) formed in the Southern Atlantic, again for the first time ever.  We are undergoing what certain biologists call ‘the Sixth Extinction’ (the fifth was the dinosaurs), with half of all the species on the planet under threat. As Alan said, the earth doesn’t belong to us, we’re just stewards, here to hand it on to our descendants; who would want a world without birds or bees (assuming that one without the latter would be able to feed itself without these essential pollinators)?

Where then, asked Alan, does this leave the Marxist tradition? Well, we didn’t have a very good 20th century, to say the least. Marxists have tended to see, in a Stalinist way, nature as an externality, a free good to be exploited, rather than to see ourselves as part of it which Marx did in some of his early works, The German Ideology, and in Volume 3 of Capital. We on the left have always tended to describe our relation to nature in ‘productivist’ language.Alan gave an example of when he worked in Cowley making cars; he said that the union was proud of the exemplary working conditions and wages and that they even had a certain measure of workers’ control. However, they never questioned the anti-social and environmentally destructive nature of the product that rolled off the end of the line.  He now thinks that they should have done.

SR considers ‘ecosocialism’ a fundamental part of its political identity and that ecological issues should always be central to any analysis of society. We, as socialists, look forward to a revolution which will fundamentally alter the social relations of society; we don’t want to inherit a desert after all. Lots of the damage is being done now and will be long-lasting; we will still find it difficult to defend the planet after a socialist revolution.

Next came Michaela from the Oxford University Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign.She and her fellow students were concerned about climate change and wanted their university to disinvest in fossil fuel shares.  She pointed out that in order to not fall over the ‘climate cliff’ of 2 degrees we need to leave 80% of currently known fossil fuel reserves in the ground. Instead of this Oxford University has now a contract with Shell to investigate new ways of extracting them, including Arctic drilling and fracking. The campaign has been targeting JCRs to get them to pass motions against this stupidity and so far has done this in 25 (about a third). They also have links with the Oxfordshire Fossil-free Campaign, which is a broadly-based movement.

After a short break we divided up into workshops on: Marxism and Ecology; Zero Growth and Productivism; Food Sovereignty and Land Grabs and, the one I chaired, The Ruling Class and Climate Change.  I made sure that I introduced myself as a member of the International Socialist Network (of Bradford and Leeds branch, by the way!)  I found it difficult to take notes during this meeting and thus will have to rely on my impressions of it, as I chaired.The two speakers, Amy Gilligan made the fairly standard points that despite paying lip service to the need to address climate change, they find it practically impossible to put in place any effective measures to stop it.In the recent Queen’s speech almost all the measures were environmentally unfriendly and the only sop was the levy on plastic bags! Obama acknowledges the reality of the problem, but is shackled by big business and the free market ideology, which prevents him from actually doing anything about it.

The discussion was wide-ranging, taking in almost all the various opinions except outright denial. Various comrades argued against the debilitating effect of ‘catastrophism’ for example. Jonathan Neale explained that this could be overplayed, that this isn’t the end of the world. Most people would survive, it was just that the world they survived in would be a significantly worse place, with worse politics as the ruling class took measures to ensure that they wouldn’t be more disadvantaged than necessary when the rest of the world woke up to who was responsible. It would be the worst catastrophe since the Black Death, he said, but this time it wasn’t an ‘act of God’, we’d know who to blame. Jonny Jones argued that we shouldn’t just eschew technological fixes, it might be that we’d have to try them and in this he was joined by Amy Gilligan. Phil Ward was against this, both solar panels and wind turbines relied on rare elements and we didn’t know if there were enough of these in the world and what the effect would be on the communities living near where they would be mined. He was much more pessimistic than Jonathan Neale in that he thought many more would die and there would be just a few living in Northern climes in what used to be tundra areas.

Richard Atkinson:

Gareth Dale (rs21) and the economist Özlem Onaran (Socialist Resistance) led a session on ‘Zero growth and productivism’. Gareth, in a wide-ranging introduction, emphasised the newness of the very idea of ‘growth’ which, applied to a nation or economy, only began tentatively to be explored in 17th century England before being systematically developed by Adam Smith and the Physiocrats in the 18th. Even then it was a theory for the ruling class, a capitalist understanding of the meaning of capitalism, until the 1920’s – Marx and Engels were ambiguous and critical. It was the twin failures of social democracy and Bolshevism, unable to offer a decisive transformation away for capitalism, that led the left into fetishising growth as the only means to improve working class conditions.

Özlem then explored the ways in which growth had become both unsustainable and largely unrelated to most people’s living standards and how zero growth, an essential target, could be managed only with large-scale redistribution of wealth and income: globally from North to South; nationally from rich to poor and within the working class as well – and how Left Unity’s economic policy, which she had helped produce, was designed with this in mind. Green ‘New Deals’ she emphasised would not be enough. While slightly enlarged in discussion I felt that this short meeting could only introduce an issue with vast implications about the nature of capitalist growth and for the aims of socialist change.

The second session in the afternoon consisted of another four workshops. Richard went to Fracking.

The session on fracking, introduced by Eva Barker and Stephen Hall brought out, I thought, how unevenly this new but vital struggle had developed, with most of the London left yet to grasp its importance. So Eva had to explain just what fracking was – a menu of extreme energy techniques – and why it had to be opposed – which probably wouldn’t be necessary at a socialist conference in the North West. She emphasised the need to unite disparate wings of the movement and keep them united – particularly the direct actions camps and local residents. Stephen emphasised the urgent need for systematic political, as well as direct, action and suggested taking the issue into the unions – with the BFAWU the first to come out in opposition to fracking – mass mobilisations in opposition to the proposed legislation legalising fracking underground, regardless of opposition from landowners and residents of the land above.

I added a little on the threat of underground coal gasification – burning coal seams in situ – in coastal areas and the ways in which fracking raised large and general political issues to do with democracy, the powers of the state, and the control exerted by capital. Other points to come up included police behaviour at Barton Moss and Balcombe and attempts by fascist groups to infiltrate the movement.

Brian Collier:

I went to the session on Climate Crisis: revolution and alternatives.  The two speakers here were Sylvain Savier (Front de Gauche) and Nancy Lindisfarne (Grandparents’ Climate Action and rs21).This was an intriguing discussion, both speakers emphasising the centrality of ecology to socialism. Sylvain said that the only way to tackle the linked economic and ecological crises was to shift to ecosocialism as capitalism uses more resources in eight months than can be renewed in a year, which he described as ‘death by corporation’.He pointed out that there is no clear separation between the state and the market: neoliberalism actually means more state intervention, it is just that it is concentrated in surveillance and discipline rather than welfare, something that Bourdieu recognised a couple of decades ago. Neoliberal newspeak talks of liberty while we are policed and our only ecosystem is wantonly laid waste; there is a need for a concerted campaign of counter-propaganda.Front de Gauche are calling for an end to the Fifth Republic and a ‘citizens’ revolution’ to rewrite the constitution and strip the president of his monarchical powers. Sylvain argued that need new forms of democracy, and that we should emphasise the ‘commons’ as against the market, but all our forms of commons are under attack.

Nancy spoke of ‘intergenerational justice’. The group she belongs to takes inspiration from the Norwegian Grandparents’ Climate Justice Campaign and the American group, the Gray Panthers. The phrase ‘intergenerational justice’ comes from the ex NASA climate scientist James Hansen’s book Storms of My Grandchildren; the truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity.  She was adamant that revolution was the only answer, that our current weak form of ‘democracy’ was incapable of saving the planet. The meeting generally agreed.The problem that the Front de Gauche had, said Sylvain, was that the Communist Party seemed not very interested in ecosocialism, which he found surprising. Given the record of official CPs here, right up to the Chinese CP now, some of us were not so shocked.

The final plenary was particularly good. It started off with Fiona Brookes, the national coordinator for the Campaign against Climate Change talking about the crucial UN conference on climate in Paris next year. She said that this was our last chance, we couldn’t afford another Kyoto or Copenhagen and that, if there was no satisfactory agreement that the time for demonstrations and protest was past, we had to fight. We had to bring major cities around Europe to a halt by involving students and trade unions, there was no alternative. She was followed by Claire Walton of Fuel Poverty Action, who also linked austerity and climate and also advocated direct action.

The day was summed up by Jonathan Neale of rs21, a long time climate activist and for a number of years the secretary of the Campaign against Climate Change. He re-iterated what he’d said in the meeting I chaired and, indeed, what he says in his excellent article in the latest issue of Socialist Resistance, entitled ‘Climate Change and Socialists’. If the climate crisis starts affecting the ruling class they won’t suddenly say, ‘Hey guys, you know what, we were wrong’. They will bring out the iron fist to ensure that their rule continues, but they will justify this by using extreme green rhetoric: in effect we will have ‘green fascism’, not in the sense that we have it now, with a few romantic thugs tagging along to the anti-fracking movement, but in the sense that we will have an authoritarian state violently enforcing policies that protect the ruling class in an extreme situation. We need to act before we get there. Jonathan pointed out that socialists have had a dismal record over the environment and that Greens have had to point out all the problems. The trouble is that they have come up with environmentalist solutions, which are based upon morality or the market, and in neither case will they work. We have ignored the problems, but it is only socialists who have the answers. Trouble is, we can’t just turn up and tell people that, having been missing before. We need to earn our respect in campaigning against the kind of society that is inexorably leading us towards catastrophic climate change during which a billion people might die. Only if we are the best fighters will people listen to our solutions.

This was a great conference with an extremely high intellectual content. It was also very competently organised, after a very small initial hitch. I’m sorry we in the IS Network weren’t asked to be involved, but I know why that is, I think. We are very good on certain issues, feminism in particular, which is not surprising given the reasons that we split from the SWP, and we should be very proud of that. We are also not behind the game when it comes to anti-fascist work and rank and file trade unionism. Where we are woeful is on the environment and especially climate change (which should be the major thing the left concentrates on, not to the exclusion of other important issues, but it should always be in our sights). SR complained that the agenda for the ‘regroupment’ conference was too full, but they also critically noted that the environment was conspicuous by its absence.

SR are committed ecosocialists and they see in rs21 a group that takes that agenda seriously. They look at us and don’t see such partners. Comrades, we need to change.

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Anti-fracking in Cheshire West

The Dee estuary area was one of the first areas to be approved by the coalition government for extreme energy extraction – coal bed methane, fracking and underground coal gasification or just fracking in the usual shorthand. There had been national actions against fracking at Balcombe and at Barton Moss, with a few local people involved in the latter but there was little local organisation at the beginning of 2014 – just a couple of small Facebook groups.

Cheshire West Left Unity decided to try and kickstart things so we called a public meeting in Chester – our first – in January. Twenty eight people attended, including the local press and, although the speaker didn’t turn up and we had done little enough preparation, the meeting pretty much ran itself so expert and committed were the audience. Within a few weeks we had a plethora of Facebook groups with hundreds of members (now thousands), organising meetings across the affected areas – largely rural areas except for one Chester suburb.

Just in time. In March exploratory drilling was started in Farndon, a village south of Chester – the anti-fracking campaign responded with a couple of mass protests and the beginning of a protection camp. The drilling company – Dart Energy – soon went away that time, having completed their exploratory drilling but it was a useful test run for local organisation – and we knew what the rigs looked like. We now have a permanent encampment at Upton, on the fringe of Chester and their anticipated next site.

Meanwhile the campaign had spread. In Wrexham comrades were just in time to protest at a council planning meeting considering the first exploratory fracking application. Over 50 attended at short notice and, to everyone’s astonishment, the Labour planing committee voted 19 to 2 to refuse the application, against officers’ advice. Wrexham is a town with memories of methane, and its effects, scarred deep into its psyche following the Gresford disaster of 1934.

In Wirral meanwhile the major concern is the threat of underground coal gasification underneath the entire Dee estuary. One would have thought the idea of setting fire to underground coal seams to produce gas was fairly obviously dodgy and indeed the experience in the few places it has been tried (like Stalin’s Russia) has been uniformly disastrous. That hasn’t stopped the laughably named Department of Energy and Climate Change issuing Petroleum Exploration and Development Licences (PEDLs) for the entire Dee estuary and a string of others shown on the map below.

All of which raises the question of the politics of fracking. We can assume that national government, under either the coalition or Labour, is completely under the thumb of the energy industry. That is why they are now holding another fake consultation on a proposals to stop landowners refusing permission for fracking under their land – even private property rights must bow to big capital.

Local councils are more open to influence, as the Wrexham experience shows – but they are ultimately powerless. The Wrexham decision is being appealed by iEnergy and the appeal will win. Planning officers in local authorities invariably advise for accepting fracking applications as a result. This obviously raises certain issues as to the extent of our democracy.

As will in due course the role of the police. At Barton Moss and Balcombe the police operated aggressively, resulting in a string of largely failed prosecutions. Round here they are being suspiciously friendly as yet, while of course gathering information all the time.

Our side meanwhile has a largely, and loosely, anarchoid feel to it. Left Unity and socialist activists like myself have had no significant problems being part of the movement, provided we aren’t seeking to dominate; and there are plenty of arguments to be made – and listened to if you are in good faith – about other political issues. So we have members our protection camp being attacked for being on benefit. Or we have the local, Tory, council leader claiming, ludicrously, to be concerned about fuel poverty while doing nothing about deepening actual poverty.

We can make links to trades unions with similar ease – one of the initial activists around here, apart from Left Unity members, was a PCS activist, and the Upton anti-fracking group had a substantial presence at our May Day rally. And we can initiate actions, as I did here. There are occasional problems – one local activist, a good one and a Socialist Appeal member, supports fracking on the economic development grounds – but not many.

But of course we’ve hardly started yet. The state and the industry will play a long game if need be, harnessing fears about energy shortages, buying off some opposition and repressing the rest. In Cheshire West the council is trying to position itself at the forefront of fracking development – they had more representatives at a recent industry conference than any other council. They aren’t going to give up. There are anti-fracking groups springing up everywhere. Get involved.

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Debating rising population and the environment: meeting report

Socialist Resistance (SR), in a spirit of comradely discussion, invited IS Network members to their meeting on the environment and having an interest in such matters I went along to observe and contribute. The discussion was around two papers that had been circulated in advance: one by Alan Thornett and one by Phil Ward. It was a small meeting, with six members of SR and myself. Roland Rance was in the chair, Alan Thornett, Phil Ward and Terry Conway were the main contributors, and there were two other members present, Dave and Tony.

It soon became apparent that I had parachuted into the middle of an ongoing debate. They had been arguing about this within SR for a couple of years at least. Roland introduced the discussion by informing us that it was a matter of some debate within SR and the wider Fourth International (FI). SR’s ‘Ecology Commission’ has been discussing it and lots of the relevant articles are on the FI’s ‘International Viewpoint’ website (http://www.internationalviewpoint.org) and SR’s website (http://socialistresistance.org). It is for this reason that I am not going to present the discussion in the order that it transpired on the day. Phil Ward actually presented his article first, but I’m going to start with Alan and Terry’s contribution, because it was Alan who started the controversy with his review of Ian Angus and Simon Butler’s book Too Many People? a couple of years ago in Socialist Resistance (http://socialistresistance.org/3013/too-many-people-a-review).

There were two questions to be addressed in the meeting: is rising population a threat to the planet, and what is the socialist solution to this?

My personal viewpoint was the former question was addressed more adequately than the latter.

Alan started his contribution by reiterating the title of his circulated article: ‘Population and the Environment: time for a rethink’. He said that this was a difficult subject for the left to engage with, because of the spectre of Thomas Malthus, which always haunts discussion of demography. Malthus’s view was that population growth would always accelerate way beyond the plodding increase of food supply. His analysis in ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’ (http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/economics/malthus/) was powerful enough to change the law of the land in 1834! He argued that the only way to prevent catastrophe (the Malthusian checks of ‘war, starvation and disease’) was to prevent the poor and indigent from breeding, which led to the New Poor Law with its mainstays of ‘less eligibility’ and the ‘workhouse test’. The same philosophy is behind Iain Duncan’s Smith’s tenure at the DWP today: the poor shall not be ‘rewarded’ for being poor, life must be harder for them than the poorest in work and people with large families shall be especially punished (welfare caps, cuts in housing benefit, etc.).

Actually, in the last instance Malthus was right! A finite planet cannot provide for an indefinitely growing demand on its resources but, to borrow a phrase from the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, ‘the lonely hour of the last instance never comes’ – but we must leave this for Phil’s contribution and my own small intervention. Malthus of course greatly underestimated the ‘carrying capacity’ of the planet, because he didn’t take into account new agricultural techniques, improvements in medicine, surgical and clinical techniques and facilities, etc.

Alan acknowledged the fact that socialists are always shivering due to old Tom’s ghost, before going on to say that since he left school the population of the planet had grown almost fourfold. It now stood at well over 7 million and even this level was not sustainable without severe damage to ecosystems. The Earth’s population seems to increase by 80 million souls per year whatever happens, which is equivalent to a country the size of Germany appearing annually to share the world’s produce. According to Alan, it shows no sign of decreasing. The last UN estimate in 2012 (the UN publishes a new estimate every two years) was revised upwards. Because of this, Alan says, it is impossible to assess in advance what the population will be in 50 years’ time, let alone by the end of the century. The received view of the Marxist left (and also leftish academics such as Danny Dorling) is that population will level off before the end of the century and then start to fall and that the main problem is distribution of food and other resources.

Alan says that Phil and other Marxist theorists tend to ignore the problem because it seems to play into the hands of the right. Perhaps we could distribute food etc. rather better, but that in itself would cause ecological problems because of the energy usage and carbon emissions due to transport. Perhaps the world could feed 10 million if we used intensive factory farming methods, but this would cause great animal suffering and destroy ecosystems in the process. We are living through the ‘sixth extinction’, the only one that has been caused by a single species: human beings. We should be protecting biodiversity because we are a part of it and living in harmony with nature, because we are a part of it. This is not ‘hippy dippy shit’ (I paraphrase here!), but is in Marx!

We need to take all this seriously, because even if we had a revolution now a socialist society would still have to deal with the ecological emergencies created by capitalism. Because of population growth (of course allied with other issues, in particular climate change) there will be tipping points such as struggles over water in the Middle East and in the Sahel. Alan went on to say that most population growth was among people with low carbon footprints, but that this may change as they become more affluent, as we hope they do.

Phil Ward had actually started the discussion, but I decided to reverse the order of the contributions in order to better reflect the debate within SR, as I said. He also started with the title of his circulated paper: ‘Is Rising Population a Problem for the Planet?’ Phil said that he doesn’t see the question in those terms. The boundaries are not entirely those set by nature, but depend upon human activity, so that population growth is not an absolute but a relative problem. Phil thought that phrasing the problem in this way can align us with the right, as Alan had acknowledged, but denied that this had to be the case. I personally do not think that Phil’s assertion here is helpful; we and the right might ask the same questions, but have different answers.

Phil looked at the projections for the future based upon the UN figures. The UN estimates for the rise in population say that we will reach 11 billion by 2100, but it will peak before then and will be falling. Of that rise of 4 billion, 3 billion will be in Africa whose population will quadruple by the end of the century. Phil reckons this is nonsense; for example, the idea that Nigeria will reach a billion by then is completely unsustainable. Phil thinks it is ridiculous to think about how we are going to manage a planet of 10 or 11 billion people, as we aren’t going to get there; other factors will kick in well before then. The problem is not population but capitalism, which externalises environmental factors and doesn’t count them in the costs of production and distribution. The problem is capitalism’s obsession with growth.

As John Bellamy Foster, an editor of Monthly Review and the author of Marx’s Ecology, has argued, most growth is waste: check out what’s in your bin at the end of the week and check out what goes into landfill. If we take waste into account a socialist society can manage to sustain the current level of population and, indeed, a much bigger one, but we will have ecological disasters to deal with that we inherited from capitalism. We need to eat far less meat, which is a very wasteful use of agricultural land, and we need to move to clean energy, while recognising that the latter is not energy-neutral given the materials from which clean energy technology is manufactured. The post-capitalist world will be difficult and complicated, but at least the former rich, along with the rest of us, will pay their share.

For the most part, I agreed with Phil, which seemed to surprise the rest of the meeting, none of whom did. I mentioned the bourgeois ‘demographic transition theory’ (DTT), which has a graph at its heart. In traditional societies the birth rate is high and the death rate is high, so the graph flat-lines along the bottom, with a low and stable population. As the agricultural and industrial revolutions kick in then the death rate falls, but the birth rate remains high due to demand for labour; the graph becomes a very steep slope. As mechanisation increases, along with a decline in infant mortality, then fewer children are born and the graph begins to level out and, quite often, to fall. The DTT describes what goes on without giving a Marxist analysis of these phenomena.

In over half of the countries in the world the number of children born per woman is below replacement rate (which is about 2.1, because of infant deaths). This includes most of the countries with the highest population: China is about 1.8 (and the effects of the one-child programme, which favoured male births, won’t kick in for another 10-15 years); India is going the same way, as is Brazil. Most of the developed world is well below replacement: Japan being well below 1 and almost all of western Europe below 2. Britain has recently had a rise, but it is still below 2, and its population would be falling disastrously but for immigration. Sub-Saharan Africa is bucking the trend, but given other eco-disasters waiting to happen will not in the end.

To use Marxian language that has been forgotten or ignored, there is a ‘metabolic rift’ between humanity and nature. We do not recognise that we are a part of nature; we see nature as a free ‘good’ to be exploited without cost. We are alienated from nature, which is what Marx said when he suggested we should abolish the distinction between country and town. Most of this is elaborated in Capital Volume III.

So, I agree with Phil, the current situation is not sustainable; probably (all other things being equal, which they aren’t going to be), the population would stabilise and then fall. The problem is that there will be issues in the meantime, mainly to do with climate change: water wars and desertification will lead to mass movements of people.

I thought the next part of the discussion, about what a socialist response should be, was far less impressive, which was probably inevitable. It’s always easier to identify a problem than identify solutions. Alan and Terry suggested that the main solution would be a socialist society (with which Phil obviously concurred) and that women around the world should be given full control over their own fertility. Alan suggested that this was a feminist solution and that the left, to their shame, had pretty much ignored feminism, and Terry agreed, but suggesting that the FI had a better record than most, given their central involvement in the early 1980s in the National Abortion Campaign.

Phil agreed that giving women access to free contraception and abortion would be a good thing in itself, but that it couldn’t solve what his antagonists considered to be the main problem. If there are 135 million people born every year and 55 million die, then there will be a net increase of the world’s population of the order of 80 million, the population of Germany. Somehow, somebody has worked out that of the people born about 35 million are not planned or ‘wanted’. So, if you give women complete control over their fertility then the world population will still grow by 45 million people a year. Phil thinks we need a better and more integrated Marxist analysis of the situation and campaigns to solve the problems of the environment we already have. If we don’t do this in 20 years then there’s no point worrying about 2100. I agree.

This was a fantastic discussion between passionate people who were incredibly well read on the subject that they were discussing. It grew rather heated at times, but that was an indication of how passionately they were engaged in the subject. I felt privileged to be a part of it and I look forward to other such discussions and to the time when the IS Network manages to match it. In my years in the SWP I never had a meeting like this, and almost never as a postgraduate at university.

Brian Collier (Bradford/Leeds IS Network branch)

Ideas and Arguments

Analysis

Morris dancers, black face paint, and why traditions evolve

This week David Cameron has found controversy and also divided opinion by appearing in a photograph posing with a Border Morris side (wearing traditional black face paint) in Banbury near his Oxfordshire constituency. Many in the folk world will have greeted this latest gaffe with a frustrated sigh as once again commentators are polarised to the left and right. On the one hand we have left wing writers pointing out the obvious racial connotations of blacking the face, and, on the other, the right declaring that this is an example of political correctness gone mad and an assault on English tradition. For members of the folk community what seems to be consistently absent is a more balanced argument that neither consigns all English folk dance to the dustbin, nor provides convenient cover for nationalists and racists.

Most Morris dancers will be able to tell you that the origin of blacking the face goes back to farm labourers who wanted a disguise from their bosses while begging and busking during the winter. However, it is also very possible that it was an attempt to mimic the North African dances that were probably Morris’s inspiration. Either way the vast majority of present-day Morris performers who do black their face do not do so as a racial comment, but because it is seen as part of the tradition. On the whole the Morris community is not welcoming to extreme displays of nationalism. On the contrary, a facial disguise is more often linked to acts of rebellion against the rural rich and is mostly heralded as part of the appeal and menace of performing these dances.

My own family have been heavily involved in Morris and English folk music for the last three generations. I grew up in a Morris village in Cameron’s Witney constituency and went to school with children who Morris danced. Contrary to popular perception, however, Cameron has not always been supportive of Morris. While it would be an exaggeration to say all Morris is working class, it certainly is not a pastime patronised by the rich such as the case of fox hunting or field sports.

While local youth clubs were closed down, Morris has also suffered. The gentrification of traditional pub venues into wine bars and restaurants has made them often actively aggressive towards Morris, while at at the same time some Tories have actively sought to exclude Morris performers from council events, a position well illustrated by Lord Coe’s declaration that he wanted no Morris dancers at the 2012 Olympics. It’s not hard to see why when Morris dancers feature heavily in local left wing events such as the annual Levellers Day.

The origins of Morris dancing

The earliest evidence of Morris dancing in England dates to somewhere around the 1500s. It was certainly known of during Shakespeare’s time, as is documented by the exploits of Globe Theatre actor Will Kemp who Morris danced from London to Norwich. Most modern speculations on the origins of Morris suggest that it may have come from a form of Moorish dancing, and this certainly seems to fit with similar forms of dance from around Europe that date back to the heght of the Muslim presence in Spain. One thing that is fairly certain, however, is that Morris is not pagan nor anything like that old.

Modern Morris dancing, while retaining some of the early trademarks such as bells, hankies and sticks, has changed hugely in the few hundred years it has existed. By the late 19th century most Morris in the South of England had died out completely with only a handful of dancers continuing it. Since the 20th century Morris has undergone several revivals and now represents a broad church of both style and opinion. Amongst this are Cotswold (perhaps the most famous who wear white and often coloured sashes), Lancashire Clog, Long Sword, Rapper (from the mining communities of the North East), East Anglian Molly and Border, from the Welsh border region. Of these only Molly and Border have groups that regularly blacken their faces.

How Morris can continue to be a welcoming community

From my experience Morris is not a re-enactment of an ancient ritual but both looks to the past, and embraces new ideas and provides an outlet for artistic expression. The divide is often between generations, something that is demonstrated by the stark contrast between the more formal men only ‘ring sides’ and younger mixed groups often based around universities.

Given the innocent intentions of many of those who do black their face, it would be easy to perceive any attack on the practice as political correctness and an attack on tradition. But I think it is important that we stop and think about the repercussions of wearing black face paint. We do not at present live within a world that is free from racist oppression. Be it racially motivated violence or the institutionalised discrimination that still exists against black people in virtually all aspects of British society, race is like it or not still on the agenda.

When looking at a picture such as this the first connection most people outside the folk community will make is that of race. Only a few years ago Nick Griffin and the BNP tried to hijack folk music and use it as means of pushing their racist agenda, and it is to the credit of the folk community that his ambitions were thwarted. This was thanks to the creation and widespread support for the group ‘Folk Against Fascism’ which in only a few months had inspired the support of overwhelming majority of the folk scene. So the question really is whether it is more important to continue a tradition unchanged or avoid continuing a practice that could be mistakenly perceived as racial statement? For me it’s certainly the latter.

Morris dancing is a living tradition, and like any tradition it survives by adapting and making itself relevant. Dancers are no longer begging farm labourers or miners, so they now perform for fun instead of money. The music has changed as well with lots of influence from other genres. Even the accordion that can often seem like one of the most characteristic instruments associated with Morris has only been part of the tradition since its invention roughly 100 years ago. So given that Morris changes all the time, what is stopping us from making this particular modification?

Many Border and Molly sides either do not paint their face or opt for alternative colours to black. For example, the border Morris side Boggarts Breakfast paint their faces blue, and the Molly group Gog Magog all use different bright colours, which in my opinion contributes their wacky style. Others opt for patterns, such as Pig Dyke Morris, though their take could be seen as a comment on the band KISS.

There are wide variety of different options for Morris sides who don’t want to be subject of this debate, or wish to make a gesture towards the sensitivities of racism. Our tradition is only in danger of dying out if we treat it like a fossil that is too brittle to evolve. It’s a strong, vibrant form of dance, and it will not be hurt or destroyed by wearing blue, green or purple on the face in place of black. However, that small change may be part of ensuring that Morris continues to be a welcoming place to people of all ethnicities, and goes on growing for generations to come. In illustration of this one of the dancers pictured has since commented on her use of a black stripe instead of full black face paint. She says of her daughter-in-law, ‘She’s very sensitive because she’s a black American and is a bit confused by it because it’s not an American tradition.’

Further Reading

Some of the Morris dancers pictured responding in the Independent >>

Folk Against Fascism >>

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Answering Ukip

How can you solve a problem like Heywood and Middleton? The fear in Labour circles is not caused by the Clacton result, which both main parties had long given up as a lost cause but by Heywood where Ukip had been a 20-1 longshot with the bookies until just a week ago. An immediate response has been to criticise Labour for failing to “campaign” around immigration, i.e. for failing to argue, like Ukip, that its candidate’s principal task in Westminster would be to demand policies to reduce the number of migrants to the UK.

The way migration functions, in the mind of a Ukip voter or those who are now calling for a Ukip of the Labour right, is like a distorting mirror in which you can see a person’s knees and neck but hardly anything of the rest of their body. If in 2015 not a single migrant entered Britain, wages and benefits would not rise, nor would the coalition cease to cut pension and services. The policy of the state would still be to warren the public services with a thousand privatisations. There is not some magic year (1960 perhaps? combining the the security of the postwar boom with an equilibrium between those nostalgic for the nuclear family and the rest of us who have run from it) to which Britain could be returned if only there were no ads for Polish builders in the newsagents.
At least when Ukip promises an exit from the EU there is a logical end-point. It would theoretically be possible for the UK to do just that and then you could pause and evaluate sensibly: we have done it. Were we right? But there is no end point in anti-immigrant politics, no moment of “accomplishment”.

It is the nature of anti-immigration politics that even to call only for a pause is to demand that some people are sent “back”. End, as Labour once did, the rights of foreign born but British educated doctors to work after finishing their studies in the UK, and inevitably people who were in the country then (as students) would have to leave (when they finished). But people who come to study also live, work, settle and have children.

When we talk about people coming to Britain we think of them (us!) arriving in waves: Saxons, Danes, Normans, the Empire Windrush generation. If you dig beneath a city you will see the remains of hundreds of years of human habitation squashed down upon each other in narrow wooden and brick layers. But migration happens neither in waves nor layers: a typical London child might have a father whose parents first crossed the borders as long as 50 or 500 years ago and a mother who was not born here and whose immigration status was uncertain until recently. Take the one migrant away and three lives are diminished. Take the migrant away and even an “indigenous” citizen must leave with her.

Mere observation teaches that the parties which promise ethnic welfarism as a strategy supposedly to delay cuts and privatisation are also the parties least enthusiastic about welfare or workplace rights and keenest about school and hospital privatisation.

So if Labour wants to stop UKIP, its present debate has to shift from one in which the two loudest groups are those saying “steal Ukip’s clothes” and “don’t panic”. The former mis-identify Ukip’s present ascendancy. It is not a party of the dispossessed; it is not an SNP south of the border. Rather it faces Labour as a real and urgent threat of a different origin – a return of Tory working class voting, liberated from the terrible stigma of the Tories’ association with the employment-cleansing that befell industrial Britain under Thatcher. The latter meanwhile are only half-right: Labour will be weakened if immigration dominates the political conversation and the Labour Party is mute or acquiescent. The Left does indeed have something which it must say, and that is to defend the right to cross borders.

To Labour’s left, there are tasks to escape from habits which are as stale as a milk which has turned brown.
One is the idea that Ukip is a party pregnant with the threat of fascism. No: it is a party of economic neoliberals with a different (eulogistic rather than hostile) relationship to the centres of ruling class power. Even the way it does anti-immigration is different from the ways in which the fascist right does elsewhere in Europe. Ukip does not call for repatriation; in Clacton, Carswell (an ideological libertarian of the right) was rhetorically pro-immigration in repeated contrast to the people voting for him. The problem with Ukip’s anti-immigrant politics lies not in the coherence with which it demands an all-white Britain but the determination and militancy with which it says “something must be done”, when that “something” cannot be achieved without making many thousands suffer.

Ukip MP Roger Carswell, Tory defector

The key task of the moment is not to isolate Ukip from the other parties (painting its politics worse and theirs better); nor is it to reposition the left as yet another adversary of the enormous, general sentiment that the old ways of doing politics have passed their time and something new must be found.

The benign point of political organisation will be reached when activists can show that the working class is reconstituting itself and that people who are presently on the periphery (because they are migrant workers, because they are on precarious contracts) are remaking forms of organisation in the way that the New Unionism of the 1880s pointed the way to the pensions and proto-welfare state that were introduced in the early 1900s. If we can achieve that then we will have a message of hope to argue back against Ukip’s vision in which the deckchairs in first class must be swapped around but the workers and the poor are still sailing the Titanic.

This article originally appeared on David’s blog Lives Running

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Marxism, Feminism and Privilege

The latest wave of feminism has set about generating new ideas and reinterpreting old ones. The response of much of the Marxist left to these developments has been ambivalent if not outright hostile, that is if feminism’s innovative capacities are registered at all. The concept of ‘Privilege’, increasingly common currency within activist circles, has suffered this same fate. This article will attempt to rescue it as a necessary supplement to Marxist understandings of oppression and answer some of the main lines of criticism directed against it.

Contemporary usage of the terms ‘Privilege’ and ‘Privilege Theory’ often leaves them undefined and vague. In the absence of any real fixity critics have been able to claim that weaker manifestations of the concept are representative of its essential and definitive components. Consequently, I believe that it is necessary to jettison the term ‘Privilege Theory’ at the outset. Elevating the idea of Privilege to a fully-fledged theoretical approach to understanding oppression has tended to lead to some rather grandiose assumptions about what is being undertaken. For the most part there is no pretension to providing a general explanation of the origins, operations and solutions to oppression in the same breath. Criticisms of Privilege as failing to explain this or that aspect of oppression, or not providing a solution to oppression, are beside the point. The tasks required of a general theory of oppression are just not within its scope.

Instead, Privilege is better made use of as an addition to a pre-existing conceptual toolbox. That adherents of liberal and poststructuralist approaches to oppression are doing as much should come as no surprise. There is no reason to believe that Marxists cannot do the same without slipping in to the failures attributed to these rival theories. Of course, if Marxists choose to cede the ground then it will be a given that Privilege is only deployed in such contexts. My contention is that it is mistaken to reject the entire idea based solely on some of its more problematic iterations. Marxism is not left unaffected by the idea of Privilege, but it is not true that it poses a fundamental problem for Marxists. The question has been falsely posed as Marxism or Privilege.

War and Imperialism

Solidarity with the people of Syria

The defeat of the government pro-war resolution in Parliament is important. Even though Labour voted against the Tory motion, it too had submitted a pro-war resolution, albeit calling for a pause until after the report from the UN weapons inspectors. That resolution was also defeated. These votes reflect the anti-war mood in Britain. But as far as the USA is concerned, the threat of war is still on the agenda possibly using bases in Britain.

The regime of Bashar al-Assad is every day carrying out more massacres of increasing cruelty against the people of Syria, whether it be the bombing of civilian areas or the use of chemical weapons. Two years into the uprising against the dictatorship, over 100,000 have died, two million are refugees and many more are “displaced” out of a population of just 20 million. This tragedy fills us with horror and rage.

We continue to extend our solidarity to the movement for democracy in Syria. We pay tribute to all those who have lost their lives in the fight against the brutal dictatorship and to all those who are continuing to resist.

But, the hypocrisy of imperialist countries also makes us angry. They bear the primary responsibility in the tragedy and in allowing the murderous Assad dictatorship to remain in power by allowing the rebellion to be starved of arms whilst Assad is supplied by Russia and Iran. They wring their hands at the plight of the Syrian people but deny them the means to defend themselves.

For over two years, Britain, the USA and France have stood by, refusing to deliver defensive anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons to the progressive and democratic components of the opposition, for fear that the toppling of the Assad regime may extend and deepen the revolution which started in Egypt and Tunisia in 2011. At the same time, they allowed Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to support Islamist reactionary forces, in their attempt at transforming the Syrian revolution into a sectarian war. They know that the victory of the revolution in Syria could spread across the region constituting a major threat to their regimes.

Now, Britain, the USA and France are discussing yet another “humanitarian intervention”, with targeted military strikes to warn Assad that they have the monopoly on the use of chemical weapons.

We continue oppose with the utmost determination any foreign direct military intervention in Syria, be it that of the USA, Britain, France and their allies or that of Iran and its allies. Those within the rebellion who support this are making a big mistake. We believe that the people of Syria should be enabled to free themselves from the Assad dictatorship. For their struggle to be successful, they should receive all the necessary material aid, including arms and humanitarian assistance, without conditions imposed by the West.

There has been a deafening silence from Western states in the face of the huge refugee crisis gripping Syria. This reflects the long-term racism and Islamophobia against refugees and economic migrants.

The Assad dictatorship has burnt all the bridges to a possible peaceful and negotiated transition to democracy. Both the USA and Britain on one side, and Russia and Iran on the other, want a solution imposed from above: maintain the regime but remove Bashar al-Assad.

We reject the notion that this rebellion has been co-opted by imperialism. This remains a popular revolution by a people struggling to free itself from oppression. It is a key component of the Arab Spring which has inspired the masses of the region and beyond.

We oppose both the “humanitarian intervention” of Britain, France and the USA, and the pro-Assad intervention by Iran and Russia. Instead, we choose to be on the side of the revolutionary masses struggling for their emancipation, and extend our solidarity in particular to the democratic and progressive components of the revolution.

Alongside the Stop the War Coalition, we will continue to campaign against intervention in Syria by Britain, France and the USA, and to send practical relief and humanitarian aid to the Syrian revolution. We also extend our hand of solidarity to Syrian socialists such as those in the Revolutionary Left Current, who have stated that their revolution has no sincere ally, except the popular revolutions of the region and of the world and of all the militants struggling against regimes of ignorance and servitude and exploitation’.

No to imperialist intervention.
Solidarity with the revolution against the Assad dictatorship.
Let the people of Syria determine their own future, free from foreign intervention.


This statement will be distributed as a leaflet at tomorrow’s Stop the War national demonstration in London.

Ideas and Arguments

A left defence of Bitcoin

For the last month, I have been conducting a small portion of my business in a different currency – Bitcoin. I do the same work as I do for British pounds, but instead of cash or a bank transfer, I’m paid with a few clicks of a mouse in a currency that is backed by no state, or by gold or silver, but by the consent of its users.  I have had a fascinating and frustrating time so far working with this “open-source currency.”

Bitcoins were designed by an anonymous cryptographer as a stateless, digital currency, continuously authenticated by its users.  This is called a cryptocurrency. Like other very useful things, such as the contact list on my phone and this article as I write it, a a cryptocurrency exists purely as information.  Of course, so does most of our money – it exists as numbers in the computers of banks.  The difference with a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin is that it is not backed by, ultimately, the guns and bombs of the state.  It is verified, instead, by cryptography.

A single Bitcoin is the answer to a complex mathematics problem.  There are millions of solutions to this problem – but there are a finite number of them – around 21 million; and as one attempts to compute these solutions, the numbers involved get larger, and so they get harder and harder to compute. In this way, a unit of a cryptocurrency is like precious metal – there is scarcity, and labour required to extract it.

In order to create the supply of Bitcoins, they must be mined.  Prospectors must find the solutions to the maths problem by running a computer program which solves the problem serially, from the first to the last solution.  In 2009, when Bitcoin was launched, anyone could run this program on ordinary consumer computers, and many thousands of Bitcoins were mined (and promptly forgotten, to be found – or discarded – according to chance).  At present, 12 million of the coins have been mined, the computers needed to efficiently mine Bitcoin cost the equivalent of thousands of pounds, and people form mining pools to reap shared rewards.  Now, as then, when a new solution is found, a new “block” of Bitcoins is mined, and the solution’s finders reap their reward, 25 Bitcoins.  As part of the design of the system, the reward halves every four years.

Each solution – each Bitcoin – is unique and identifiable, and computer programs can trace a specific Bitcoin, or fragment of it, just as surely as if it was an object inscribed with a serial number.  It cannot be counterfeited, because each Bitcoin – whether it is the first, the fourth, or the millionth, or any fragment thereof – can be put into a computer program and connected with a vast, open-book ledger of all of the Bitcoin transactions in the history of the earth, each assigned to its anonymous numbered account, redundantly backed up on thousands of computers of ordinary Bitcoin users worldwide.  This system is called the blockchain.

Sadly, most of the popular awareness about Bitcoin is about its recent skyrocketing value and its volatility.  This makes people hoard their Bitcoin, or day-trade it like a penny stock, and slows its adoption as a means of exchange.  The point of Bitcoin is not to hoard it and get a bunch of dollars or pounds out – instead, it’s important to buy goods and services with it, and encourage others to do so. The real power of Bitcoin will be when it is accepted for everything from milk to babysitting to life insurance,  and is no longer associated with the underbelly of the economy.

I heard about Bitcoin years ago but I never actually got around to getting any until I read the aforementioned article.  Like so many others I cursed my luck at having missed the boat.  Bitcoins had always been, in my mind, a currency used by people buying weed over the Internet – or, selling explosives or illegal pornography.  Then I thought how useful Bitcoin could be for sex workers.  We and our clients use cash because of its anonymity, but carrying cash poses its own risks.   Robbery and confidence games are a real threat, and counterfeit cash is always a risk. Credit cards, PayPal, and other systems are able to be reversed, so Bitcoin could present an opportunity for sex workers to gain an added layer of safety, protecting their income from thieves and predators.  For clients, Bitcoin offers a chance to pay securely and anonymously, making hiring the services of sex workers safer.

Anonymity helps people who are victimised by power, not just sex workers and clients.  Any political resistance against an unjust government requires use of money and the economy, and as more and more of the world’s economic transactions are conducted online, that government can track that resistance as easily as if it had planted a bug on the resistance’s treasurer.  That might be a good reason why China decided to prevent its banks from dealing in Bitcoin.

The Bitcoin system was designed to have extremely low transaction fees – .01% or less of most transactions; this, its self-certifying nature, and its usability over networks as modest as a handful of cell-phones make it an ideal way for the people of the global South to trade remotely.  Bitcoin could take over much of the remittance trade, and could even make a modest inroad into the supremacy of the dollar there, with many good political effects.

Properly deployed, Bitcoin’s convenience makes it attractive.  As a currency, Bitcoin has the potential to be transformative.  In itself, though, Bitcoin cannot cause revolutionary social change, as its most vocal supporters suggest.  For critics of capitalism, Bitcoin can be a useful tool to protect the identities of activists, but it is also an interesting item of study in itself.  For all of our critiques of the existing system, we socialists propose our own states, complete with currencies.  Would a decentralised currency like Bitcoin pose as much of a threat to socialist economies as it could to today’s central-bank-mediated capitalism?

In order to answer these questions fully, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies need to eliminate a few bugs from their systems.  Although it is quite easy to have a secure, offline Bitcoin ‘wallet,’ many users don’t know this and protect their Bitcoins with flimsy passwords, so they’re stolen.  Some Bitcoin exchanges and businesses have succumbed to hackers or the greed of their owners, and thousands of Bitcoins have been stolen in this way.  This ‘wild west’ situation has made it easy for governments, banks and big retailers to eschew Bitcoin as an unsafe bet; for the deeper arguments about power and the meaning of currency to be raised, Bitcoin’s community first needs to resolve these concerns.

Of course, socialist political parties and movement organisations should accept Bitcoin, and get the support of those who would prefer to give anonymously.  But socialists should also study Bitcoin, and the concept of cryptocurrency as a whole, as part of the new heterodoxy of ideas on the left.  Marx, Lenin or Trotsky could not have conceived of a decentralised currency mediated via the Internet, or of the Internet itself; but like many other things that have arisen out of the world’s increased connectedness, Bitcoin could be a powerful tool towards realising their ideas.

Analysis

Morris dancers, black face paint, and why traditions evolve

This week David Cameron has found controversy and also divided opinion by appearing in a photograph posing with a Border Morris side (wearing traditional black face paint) in Banbury near his Oxfordshire constituency. Many in the folk world will have greeted this latest gaffe with a frustrated sigh as once again commentators are polarised to the left and right. On the one hand we have left wing writers pointing out the obvious racial connotations of blacking the face, and, on the other, the right declaring that this is an example of political correctness gone mad and an assault on English tradition. For members of the folk community what seems to be consistently absent is a more balanced argument that neither consigns all English folk dance to the dustbin, nor provides convenient cover for nationalists and racists.

Most Morris dancers will be able to tell you that the origin of blacking the face goes back to farm labourers who wanted a disguise from their bosses while begging and busking during the winter. However, it is also very possible that it was an attempt to mimic the North African dances that were probably Morris’s inspiration. Either way the vast majority of present-day Morris performers who do black their face do not do so as a racial comment, but because it is seen as part of the tradition. On the whole the Morris community is not welcoming to extreme displays of nationalism. On the contrary, a facial disguise is more often linked to acts of rebellion against the rural rich and is mostly heralded as part of the appeal and menace of performing these dances.

My own family have been heavily involved in Morris and English folk music for the last three generations. I grew up in a Morris village in Cameron’s Witney constituency and went to school with children who Morris danced. Contrary to popular perception, however, Cameron has not always been supportive of Morris. While it would be an exaggeration to say all Morris is working class, it certainly is not a pastime patronised by the rich such as the case of fox hunting or field sports.

While local youth clubs were closed down, Morris has also suffered. The gentrification of traditional pub venues into wine bars and restaurants has made them often actively aggressive towards Morris, while at at the same time some Tories have actively sought to exclude Morris performers from council events, a position well illustrated by Lord Coe’s declaration that he wanted no Morris dancers at the 2012 Olympics. It’s not hard to see why when Morris dancers feature heavily in local left wing events such as the annual Levellers Day.

The origins of Morris dancing

The earliest evidence of Morris dancing in England dates to somewhere around the 1500s. It was certainly known of during Shakespeare’s time, as is documented by the exploits of Globe Theatre actor Will Kemp who Morris danced from London to Norwich. Most modern speculations on the origins of Morris suggest that it may have come from a form of Moorish dancing, and this certainly seems to fit with similar forms of dance from around Europe that date back to the heght of the Muslim presence in Spain. One thing that is fairly certain, however, is that Morris is not pagan nor anything like that old.

Modern Morris dancing, while retaining some of the early trademarks such as bells, hankies and sticks, has changed hugely in the few hundred years it has existed. By the late 19th century most Morris in the South of England had died out completely with only a handful of dancers continuing it. Since the 20th century Morris has undergone several revivals and now represents a broad church of both style and opinion. Amongst this are Cotswold (perhaps the most famous who wear white and often coloured sashes), Lancashire Clog, Long Sword, Rapper (from the mining communities of the North East), East Anglian Molly and Border, from the Welsh border region. Of these only Molly and Border have groups that regularly blacken their faces.

How Morris can continue to be a welcoming community

From my experience Morris is not a re-enactment of an ancient ritual but both looks to the past, and embraces new ideas and provides an outlet for artistic expression. The divide is often between generations, something that is demonstrated by the stark contrast between the more formal men only ‘ring sides’ and younger mixed groups often based around universities.

Given the innocent intentions of many of those who do black their face, it would be easy to perceive any attack on the practice as political correctness and an attack on tradition. But I think it is important that we stop and think about the repercussions of wearing black face paint. We do not at present live within a world that is free from racist oppression. Be it racially motivated violence or the institutionalised discrimination that still exists against black people in virtually all aspects of British society, race is like it or not still on the agenda.

When looking at a picture such as this the first connection most people outside the folk community will make is that of race. Only a few years ago Nick Griffin and the BNP tried to hijack folk music and use it as means of pushing their racist agenda, and it is to the credit of the folk community that his ambitions were thwarted. This was thanks to the creation and widespread support for the group ‘Folk Against Fascism’ which in only a few months had inspired the support of overwhelming majority of the folk scene. So the question really is whether it is more important to continue a tradition unchanged or avoid continuing a practice that could be mistakenly perceived as racial statement? For me it’s certainly the latter.

Morris dancing is a living tradition, and like any tradition it survives by adapting and making itself relevant. Dancers are no longer begging farm labourers or miners, so they now perform for fun instead of money. The music has changed as well with lots of influence from other genres. Even the accordion that can often seem like one of the most characteristic instruments associated with Morris has only been part of the tradition since its invention roughly 100 years ago. So given that Morris changes all the time, what is stopping us from making this particular modification?

Many Border and Molly sides either do not paint their face or opt for alternative colours to black. For example, the border Morris side Boggarts Breakfast paint their faces blue, and the Molly group Gog Magog all use different bright colours, which in my opinion contributes their wacky style. Others opt for patterns, such as Pig Dyke Morris, though their take could be seen as a comment on the band KISS.

There are wide variety of different options for Morris sides who don’t want to be subject of this debate, or wish to make a gesture towards the sensitivities of racism. Our tradition is only in danger of dying out if we treat it like a fossil that is too brittle to evolve. It’s a strong, vibrant form of dance, and it will not be hurt or destroyed by wearing blue, green or purple on the face in place of black. However, that small change may be part of ensuring that Morris continues to be a welcoming place to people of all ethnicities, and goes on growing for generations to come. In illustration of this one of the dancers pictured has since commented on her use of a black stripe instead of full black face paint. She says of her daughter-in-law, ‘She’s very sensitive because she’s a black American and is a bit confused by it because it’s not an American tradition.’

Further Reading

Some of the Morris dancers pictured responding in the Independent >>

Folk Against Fascism >>

swp crisis

(Trigger Warning) Rape in the SWP: a comrade’s testimony and experience of the disputes committee

In December of last year – I was still at this point a member of the SWP – another member (I refuse to call that person a comrade) raped me. At first I refused to accept it and actually felt guilty. This person had been sexually harassing me for about a month prior to the attack and part of me felt that I should have said something sooner. In January, after confiding in a comrade who made me realise what really happened, I decided to file an official complaint with the SWP’s disputes committee.

This was not an easy decision to make. I had sat through that disputes report at conference that same month, with the man who raped me just a few seats away, and had been disgusted at what I had heard. However, I and other comrades truly believed that it must have been a one-off – that the appalling behaviour shown throughout must have been a mistake that would be rectified and never repeated. I think we all know now that we were wrong.

In late January I contacted my organiser to inform them I wanted to make a complaint. It was suggested that a female member in the district would hear my complaint and act as my intermediary. The organiser was a close ‘friend’ of both myself and the offender, and had been in the same house at the same party the night it had happened. I am not going to go into the details of the event, but I will outline the disputes procedure.

I made an initial complaint (of sexual assault, however the description of what happened can be nothing but rape) in which I detailed everything that had happened that night to my intermediary, who took notes. She got in touch with the disputes committee, forwarding the notes that she had taken the night I spoke to her. These notes were sent to Pat Stack, who sent them to Charlie Kimber, who then suspended the offender while the disputes committee (DC) looked into the case.

The DC replied that the complaint had to come from me in my own words. I emailed the DC myself, again forwarding the notes from my intermediary, saying, ‘Please accept this email as my formal complaint to the disputes committee. I have attached the previously forwarded, by [***], notes with one slight change and these are the basis of my complaint.’

As it turned out this still wasn’t enough, and I received this rather abrupt email telling me so:

“Currently, the DC is in receipt of your email (30th Jan 2013) that asks the DC to accept this email and its attachment – [***] previously forwarded (23th Jan 2013) notes with one slight change – as your formal complaint to the DC.  You have described these two documents as ‘the basis of your complaint’.

You are asking the DC to accept a third party description of what you said to the third party, as the complaint. This is not possible. Currently, the DC has still not received your account of what happened to you, while the defendant has been suspended for the past two weeks.

You need to finalise your own complaint.

Further, on the phone on Wednesday evening, you named three people to whom you have previously disclosed the identity of the defendant and to whom you are currently disclosing where your DC process is up to. You have done this even though you have open access to your chosen intermediary. Your actions are breaching the confidentiality that must surround complaints processes as well as identities and complaint details.

We recognise that this is difficult for you. We are trying to enable you to communicate clearly with the DC, and to protect the well-being, information and confidential identity of involved Comrades to the best of our abilities. It is vital that we work out the most constructive way forward from this juncture. The DC asks that you contact us at your earliest opportunity to discuss this further.

This correspondence is confidential between the DC and yourselves.”

I replied with this:

“Here is my statement, I have been out of the country so sorry for the delay.

In response to you saying i have broken confidentiality, i spoke to the other comrades before i decided to come to disputes as i didn’t know what to do, i was wary of the disputes committee due to recent events and the report back that sat through at conference. Also one of these comrades is a female comrade who i know had previously felt uncomfortable at the behaviour of [***] and had helped me come to terms with what had happened.”

Throughout the whole of this process the need for confidentiality was constantly repeated to me. I, as someone who had been through something horrific, was being told that I could not talk to my friends and comrades – that I must only to talk to a woman who up until this point I had very little to do with.

After sending my statement it was arranged for Rhetta and Jackie from the DC to come to my area and interview both me and the offender. At this point I believed that this was my case being heard. On the evening of the interview Rhetta and Jackie asked me to talk them through the events of the night, which I did. Some of the questions that followed included “what effect would you say drink and drugs had on you that night?” I was also asked and pushed to talk about abuse that had happened to me previously, as earlier on that night I had been emotional and had confided in the man that assaulted me. This was extremely upsetting for me during a process that was already hard enough.

There is also some of the assault that I cannot remember fully, not due to intoxication but rather that I have blocked it out. He spoke to me throughout, however while I can still hear him talking, feel it in fact, I cannot remember exactly what it was he said.

At the end of a very long and upsetting interview I was asked what I wanted to happen next. When I enquired further what was meant by that, I was asked whether I would like to make it an official complaint and have an official hearing. Up until this point I thought that this was already so and that this was part of the official hearing.

They went on further to say that it was unlikely that the DC would be able to find either way, especially taking into account the level of intoxication, without being sure of the effect it had on me (in fact I was stone cold sober by the time the assault happened, which I repeated throughout). They said that I couldn’t remember everything (in fact the only thing I couldn’t remember from the actual assault was what he had been saying to me), and that a hearing would be harder for me.

I was encouraged to drop the case, whilst being told that “it is of course your decision, you do what’s best for you”, etc. Given such a bleak choice I decided to drop the complaint. I in no way feel this decision was mine – I was basically told there was no point, something which, as I found out more later on, was most definitely true.

I feel it is worth mentioning that the interview with Rhetta and Jackie was extremely stressful for me and damaging to my already frail mental health. They made me feel as if I was ridiculous for making a complaint and too damaged a person to really assess what had happened and how to deal with it. Following the interview I fell into a week-long state of mania. This is the real effect of what the SWP’s line towards women and rape is: it damages people, it is dangerous. During the week that followed I was phoned three times by my intermediary and by members of the DC to essentially make sure I kept quiet: “If anyone asks you about the complaint or why it was dropped just say ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ and ‘it was my decision’.” Well actually I do want to talk about it and it wasn’t my decision.

I have since found out that he was able to read my statement, while I have not seen his or even heard from the DC what he had said in response. Also he was able to have a character support, who turned out to be someone not even in the party. I was offered no sort of witness, despite the fact that I listed in my statement another female comrade in the district and mentioned that they would be happy to confirm that they had not only felt uncomfortable in that man’s presence but had also, previous to the assault, mentioned to me that he was acting in a harassing manner towards me.

I feel that it is no coincidence that the DC showed favour to a male member who was very prominent in the district and was starting to make a name for himself nationally within the organisation. A male member who was sent by the district to special conference (after my complaint) – even my intermediary voted for him – on a strong pro-CC line, who then went on to be on the district committee, and who is still a visible presence at demos, meetings, etc.

The similarities in how the cases of W and X were handled and how mine was are striking, and should be proof to anyone that the Socialist Workers Party is a group that is sexist, full of bullies, and above all will cover up rape to protect its male members and reputation. Taking this on board, the SWP is counter-revolutionary and is against the socialist tradition; we cannot have a revolution without fighting for the liberation of all oppressed groups – to cover up rape is oppressing women. So anyone who is a revolutionary, a socialist, a decent human being should have nothing to do with the SWP and its abhorrent practices. Deprive them and all rape apologists of air, do not in engage in any way. They are not worth the energy of revolutionaries – in short they are scum and we need not bother with them.

If any other person wants to come forward and share their story please do, or speak to someone you feel confident speaking to – we are not in this alone. Solidarity.