Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Acts of terror in the Gaza Strip

Title 18,2331 of the US Code defines international terrorism as any activities that "(A) involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State, or that would be a criminal violation if committed within the jurisdiction of the United States or of any State; (B) appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping." This definition, and particularly article B iii, quite succinctly sums up the current actions by Israel in the Gaza Strip.

The official narrative is that the attacks are a reprisal for a week long barrage of rocket attacks from Gaza following the expiry on 18th December of Hamas's ceasefire. But, of course, the story is far more complex that it at first appears. In fact, Hamas offered to renew its ceasefire in exchange for an end to the blockade of Gaza. But the words of
Tzipi Livni, the Israeli Foreign Minister, were unequivocal in stating Israel's true aim in this conflict;

As long as Hamas continues to operate with terror from Gaza, Israel will operate with its own means. The government is responsible for the citizens of the state. It needs and must respond to terror through military means. We cannot allow Gaza to remain under Hamas control.
And therein lies the true heart of this conflict. The rocket attacks on Israel, though themselves inexcusable, were fuelled by desperation. The week-long barrage of attacks left just one Israeli dead, whilst the blockade whose cessation would have prevented this has starved the 1.5 million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip of food and medical resources. According to Oxfam, only 137 trucks of food were allowed into the region last month, whilst the United Nations states that poverty has reached an "unprecedented level" - the Strip is nothing more than a prison of sick, hungry people waiting to die because they voted the "wrong way."

After Hamas won the 2006 elections, which independent observers judged to be unequivocally free and fair, it offered Isreal a long ceasefire and recognition of two separate states, if only Israel would return to its 1967 borders. This was partly in response to a poll conducted by the University of Maryland which showed 72 percent of Palestinians to be in favour of a two-state solution. Israel rejected these terms to declare Gaza a "hostile territory" and blockade the population. Then, as now, it chose overwhelming state terror and collective punishment over diplomacy, with tacit backing from its prime benefactor, the United States.

The solution to this conflict is an obvious one, if only because it is backed by a majority of people in Israel, Palestine, and world-wide. Two states, drawn up along the internationally recognised borders of 1967, with a 1-1 land swap to enable passage between Gaza and the West Bank, and the right of return to Israel for Palestinians.

The reasons that this remains out of reach, however, are more complex. Obviously, the events of the past half-century have fermented massive distrust on both sides, but there is also the issue of the United States to take into consideration. In pursuing its own agenda with regards to the Middle East and control of resources there, the US has consistently backed and funded the hardliners and groomed isolationist policy within the Israeli government, only withdrawing support for Israeli actions, and thus limiting their ability to take them, when they have conflicted with US interests. The most recent example is Bush's veto on an air strike against suspected Irania nuclear sites, but a more telling demonstration of the power relations between the two countries occurred in 2005.

Back then, the US ordered Israel to cease sales of advanced military technology to China, and imposed sanctions when Israel tried to avoid the restrictions. The US then cut off all "strategic dialogue," its defence chiefs refused to meet with their Israeli counterparts, and made further demands. It insisted on tightened oversight of Knesset military exports, the signing of a memorandum of understanding, and the government and Mofat's presentation of a written apology to the United States. And, when Israel capitulated, the US insisted on even harsher demands and showed utter contempt for the Israeli delegation.

Clearly, then, one of the central problems of peace in the Middle East is the US's aggressive pursuit of its own interests, and its use of Israel as a client state in this regard. Which is why, as obvious and attainable as the resolution of this conflict is, it cannot proceed unless the US's influence is greatly curbed, or its policies with regards to the region change quite dramatically. President-elect Barack Obama has been uncharacteristically quiet on the issue thus far, which is why - as well putting pressure on the Israeli government themselves - we need a grassroots movement on the scale that saw Obama surge to victory in the elections to push for the new president to move away from the policies of successive past administrations and make move towards real peace.

Whatever else happens, the people must not remain silent on this issue, or the staus quo will remain and the violence and human misery will continue to escalate exponentially.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Can the anarchist movement finally gain momentum?

It has now been three months since the run on Northern Rock and the collapse of sub-prime mortgages led us into an economic crisis that has demonstrated the glaring flaws in the capitalist system, and now the so-called "credit crunch" is really starting to bite. This week, we have seen OPEC cut oil output by 2.2 million barrels per day as both prices and demand plummet, the decline of the pound against the Euro, unemployment rise by 137,000, a spending spree as Woolworths - one of Britain's most popular high-street names - goes bust, and central banks in the US and UK slash interest rates in a frenzy that is having little effect.

As panic and fear grips Wall Street and the City, however, the streets of the real world are feeling the first effects of a growing discontent amongst the working classes. In Athens, Greek students stormed a state television station and militant workers have occupied union offices in only the latest incidents of nation-wide unrest that - though ostensibly focused on the shooting of Alexandros Grigoropolous - has drawn upon widespread anger at the social, and particularly, economic policies of the incumbent government. With good reason, some commentators have dubbed these events "the first credit-crunch riots."

But underneath the anger spreading across Greece, there is the hint of something deeper and more tangible. Greece's anarchists have been at the forefront of the mass protests, and across the globe other anarchist communities have been quick to stage demonstrations of solidarity. Anarchists have, of course, always been at the heart of direct action by the Left, such as the labour, anti-war, anti-fascist, and global justice movements, but here we are presented with an opportunity for something more.

In Greece, and particularly Athens, there already exists a large, vocal, and organised community of anarchists. Across the rest of Europe, too, the numbers are significant enough to make an impact. Now, however, anarchist communities are consolidating and strengthening their organisation in places such as Turkey in response to events in Greece. There already exists a wide network of anarchist and libertarian-left groups across the planet who are active but underground. The hope is that now, they will make themselves known.

Anarchism is not about rioting, nor about simply being against various things. The ultimate goal of anarchists everywhere is to dismantle all illegitimate hierarchy and authority in favour of direct democracy, freedom, equality, and free association in a loose collective of decentralised, highly-organised, and autonomous communities. Anarchists are now presented with a fantastic opportunity to get this message out, to disseminate our ideas amongst a global populace disenfranchised with capitalism and authoritarianism, and to increase our numbers. It may even be possible, in areas such as Exarchia, to show the world what we mean in practice by undertaking anarchic social revolution as was done during the Spanish Civil War, though this would prove the most difficult and dangerous of tasks.

Most importantly, however, we must make our presence - and, most importantly, our politics - known to the wider working class constituency.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Tales from Athens

On Saturday 6th December, 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos was shot dead by police in the Exarchia area of Athens. The teenager was part of the area's strong anarchist community, and his death provided the catalyst for riots that continue to grip the city, motivated by far more than just this one murder, as libcom.org explains;
Public anger at the slaying - only the most recent incident of what is habitual police brutality - has intersected with widespread discontent at neoliberal reforms and the widening gap between rich and poor, being exacerbated by government policy.
The shooting, and the mass unrest in response to it, is the pinnacle of dischord that has been growing against the state for some time. In October, over 300 high school campuses were occupied by students in opposition to conservative education eform, including the arrest of pupils in Karditsa who protested against an iron fence being erected around their school. That same month, workers staged a 24-hour General Strike against the bail-out of collapsing banks, laid-off textile workers were brutalised by riot police when protesting at being denied four months of pay, and those protesting at the murder of an asylum seeker in an attack by riot police on those queing to register asylum claims had to raise barricades against a second onslaught. In November, prisoners on hunger strike forced the government to give in to their demands for better conditions, protesters against construction of an open refuse dump were met with the use of force by riot police, and a protest against police brutality attacked the police headquarters in Volos. And at the start of this month, nurses on a 48 hour strike occupied the health ministry and students clashed with police in another protest against unwanted educational reform that culminated in the deputy Minister of Health being held hostage.

The current riots, however, have opened the eyes of the world to the level of discontent that has been brewing in Greece. It has also demonstrated the enviable strength and solidarity of the labour movement there, in particular of the anarchist movement, in the face of far greater state repression than can be seen here in Britain. As the students occupying Athens Polytechnic noted, in a statement released to Athens Indymedia;
Contrary to the statements of politicians and journalists who are accomplices to the murder, this was not an “isolated incident”, but an explosion of the state repression which systematically and in an organised manner targets those who resist, those who revolt, the anarchists and anti-authoritarians.
It is the peak of state terrorism which is expressed with the upgrading of the role of repressive mechanisms, their continuous armament, the increasing levels of violence they use, with the doctrine of “zero tolerance”, with the slandering media propaganda that criminalises those who are fighting against authority.
The level of anarchist influence and worker solidarity currently present in Greece is on a level that has previously been unmatched since the social revolution in Spain during the civil war between communists and fascists, and it is an example that anarchists in the rest of Europe would do well to heed.

The current anarchist movement in Greece has its roots in opposition to the US-installed military dictatorship of Georgios Papadopoulos that reigned in the country from 1967 to 1974. They have made Athens' Exarchia quarter a stronghold against the authoritarianism of the ruling party, and remain a central part of a vibrant and unified labour movement, one that, even as the rioting continues, remains committed to launching another General Strike in opposition to cuts in public spending and the undermining of the pay and pensions of workers.

As nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and even pogroms emerge across the continent, and a movement dedicated to dividing the working class along racial lines in order to achieve power, we need a strong anarchist and trade unionist response now more than ever. One that is not afraid to incur the wrath of the State in its struggle. We need to organise the working class so that they are willing to throw the infrastructure of a country into chaos in defence of freedom or protest against inustice, to stand tall against attempts to divide us, and to fight with determination if and when governments resort to state terror against their own people.

Monday, 8 December 2008

"Tough" talk solves nothing

In the wake of several cases of quite outrageous child abuse, most notably those of "Baby P" and Shannon Matthews, politicians and right-wing commentators have been falling over each other to push for hard-line measures that do far more to sate rabid outrage than to address the root cause of any problems. The government, typically, has used these issues as a case for welfare "reform" - or, in more honest language, further limitations on the availability of welfare for poor people. The right wing press, also very typically, has been promoting ideas that far outdo the ruling party in terms of Draconian viciousness. Led by Melanie Phillips of the Daily Mail and Jon Gaunt of The Sun, they have been calling for the abolition of child benefit.

Like most arguments by the right, their case is superficially compelling but utterly disintegrates if you examine it too closely. In Phillips' words, child benefit is "the seminal link between man-hating feminism and welfare dependency" and "the linchpin of serial irresponsibility and social breakdown" not to mention "the biggest single incentive for lone parenthood." The previoulsy mentioned cases of child abuse show that "child benefit, and all the multifarious other welfare incentives to irresponsibility, are intrinsically linked to the emergence of households where, in truth, civilisation has given way to barbarism" and there is, so she says, only one solution:
If we want to end these appalling abuses, we have to stop the welfare system from subsidising births out of wedlock. Child benefit has to go, along with the rest of the engine for mass fatherlessness that our welfare system has become.
It is important, straight away, to dispel the myths that Phillips and her co-thinkers are perpetuating with such non-sequitural links between child abuse and welfare before we move on to talk about any real solution. Progressive action that addresses the root of the problems is only made more difficult whilst ideological fallacies, motivated by prejudice rather than reason, persist.

Firstly, as HM Revenue & Customs' own statistics demonstrate, the number of child benefit claimants and of children for whom it was claimed has remained near-enough constant over the past eight-years. Though the number has fluctuated, there has been no significant rise in claimants, and certainly not a steady or a rapid rise, contrary to Phillips' assertion that this "incentive" has led to a massively increased "emergence" of the "barbarism" of single-parenthood. At the same time, the average number of children per claimant family has remained between 1.76 and 1.82, with one and two-child families counting for 84% of claimant households, hardly the "production-line cash cows of the welfare state" of Phillips' dystopian fantasism. There were just forty-six more children on the receiving end of the benefit in August 2007 than there were in May 2000.

It is also important to note, as explained on the HMRC website, that "Child Benefit is available to families with children aged up to 16, or up to 20 and in full-time non-advanced education or certain forms of training" and "is not income-based." To clarify, child-benefit is neither restricted to single parents, nor the poor and unemployed. Even setting aside the fact that it is absurd to believe something such as raising a child alone can be "incentivised," that these personal circumstances are not part of the criteria for recieving payments goes a long way to show the level to which that belief is based in fantasy.

However, it is easy to discern the prejudice that this fantasism is grounded in. Those who rail against the imagined "incentivisation" and "promotion" of single parenthood often, as Phillips does, look back with horror at how "illegitimacy [was] abolished from the statute book" and wish to restore the "stigma and shame" of simply having or being a child born out of wedlock. This is little more than vicious snobbery veiled in "traditionalism." Yes, it is better for any child to have two parents rather than one caring for it (and, despite another irrational prejdice Phillips co-thinkers also hold, this includes homosexual parents, and marriage has no bearing upon it) but this does not mean there aren't a vast majority of single parents who do an amazing job. And it certainly doesn't mean that we should cast out and cut off those who do not fit this mould. Single parenthood is not the "lifestyle choice" that the right so scornfully suggests, and there are many reasons. Rape. Incest. The breakdown of a previously stable relationship. Women fleeing domestic abuse. And, yes, accidents.

Should we make sure that victims of rape and incest who bear children get no Child Benefit and be made to live in shame because of their "illegitimate" child? Should parents be made to "stay together for the kids" even if they don't love one another (something children are far from blind to)? Should women be forced to stay with a violent and abusive spouse just because he happens to have been the one to impregnate her? And should all single women who fall pregnant be forced into the workhouse? We have long moved on from such reactionary attitudes of the past, and no doubt those who think as Phillips does will protest that they do not favour any such ill-founded and hateful measures. But, I still have to ask, if you decry the abolition of "illegitimacy" and removing the stigma of single parenthood as the catalyst of "social breakdown," and you want "to stop the welfare system from subsidising births out of wedlock" then how can what you espouse be any better?

Contrary to the right, the solution to the problems of child abuse and perpetual joblessness doesn't involve stopping "subsidising births out of wedlock," as such a measure is unneccesarily punitive towards far too many people who come under neither heading. Working single parents, single parents who cannot work because of the age of their children, cohabiting parents, married parents, gay parents, and of course the children in question, for whom said benefit equals food in their stomachs, clothes on their backs, and a roff over their heads. No, the solution is far more long-term and far less inane, simplistic, and hateful.

Of course, we do need to make an effort to get more people into work so that the welfare state works as it was intended - as a safety net for the poorest in society - because inactivity does breed apathy and detatchment whilst work and job satisfaction lead to a more fulfilling life. To this end, we need to reform employment itself, at least whilst we remain in the undesirable position of a capitalist society where the majority must rent themselves out to a minority who reap the profits of their labour. We can do this by making sure that the minimum wage is always sustained at the level of a living wage - the TUC estimate at current inflation levels being £6.70, a whole £1.20 above the current minimum - and by according the notion of job satisfaction greater importance than it currently recieves. I think that the best way to address this is by changing the role that those employed in job centres undertake. They shouldn't be mere form-fillers, but teachers who can offer retraining to those who want or need it as well as counsellors to those seeking employment within their current skill levels. This way, the efficiency of the role can be increased and we can begin to see less long-term jobless and more who are temporarily between employment.

With single and poor parents specifically, we need to make sure that they get the help they need. The idea of providing clothing, housing, and sustenance to those who need it rather than the money for them to get it is one that I rather like, appealking as it does to the libertarian socialist principle of "to each according to his need," and will help to protect certain people from themselves. Simply cutting off the money, on the other hand, would serve only to make them - and, of course, their dependants - far worse off.

Contrary to the strawman argument of the Right, nobody is suggesting that we simply pour money upon those who are unwilling to work or that we "promote" joblessness and single-parenthood. Instead, the point being made is that threats and punitive measures are not only inhumane but counter-productive. We need real solutions to the problems of poverty that are largely a result of the society we live in and the injustices of private property, not stereotypes and rhetoric that dehumanise the most wretched as an excuse to reap yet more misery from the poor and working class.