Saturday, 31 January 2009

A year of discontent?

The misery and discontent caused by the recession continues to mount up. In France, a general strike ground the country to a halt. In Greece, farmers have been blockading the border with Bulgaria and the main Athens-Thessaloniki highway. In Merseyside, 1,150 workers lost their jobs as Littlewoods closed its contact centre in Liverpool and cut jobs at other sites around the region. Iceland's coalition government collapsed under the pressure of the crisis.

And these are just the headline-grabbing stories. With world economic growth at its worst level in sixty years, and a vast number of companies - from Ford, to Shell, to Sony and Nintendo - announcing losses, ordinary people are facing layoffs and redundancies in almost every sector.
All indications suggest that the recession is set to continue through 2009 at least and that, whilst governments and business groups squabble over the best way to revive big business and stimulate vast profits for the propertarian class, conditions for ordinary people will only worsen. As well as vast layoffs and soaring unemployment, hiring has all but ceased, and repossessions and bankruptcy are increasing exponentially.

The dogma of capitalism and the free market is imploding before our eyes. Those responsible for this crisis are openly betraying the truth behind the myth: that market discipline is reserved for the working classes, who must reap the whirlwind as those who sowed the wind expect - nay, demand - to be bailed out by the government intervention so decried in times of boom. The full effects of market deregulation have been laid out before us, the lie of its saviour power deccimated by the light of fact.

We are faced with a year of discontent, one which has already demonstrated the potential to generate the kind of industrial action that dominated and defined the late seventies and early eighties. Here in Britain, oil refinery workers across the country have staged wildcat strikes in solidarity with workers at the Total refinery in Lindsey, ostensibly over Italian contractor IREM bringing in its own workforce to build a new desulphurisation plant at a time when the local economy is suffering. Almost immediately, this was picked up by the right-wing press - and the far-right BNP, who have joined the protests - and trumpeted as vindication of the anti-immigration message they've been blasting out for years.

In truth, there is nothing anti-immigrant about these protests. The British workers are angry, especially given the tight competition for skilled work here in the UK, that IREM has drafted in Italians ahead of locals to do the job, and they have every right to be. The local economy is suffereing, and joblessness rising, in the wake of the downturn and this act - motivated by globalised economics and cost-cutting, not "multiculturalism" or similar right-wing strawmen - only serves to make things worse. However, the anger is directed at the company behind the move and not the workers themselves. Alan Nelson, a lifelong trade-unionist partaking in the strikes in Lincolnshire, was quoted in The Independent as saying that "there have been no problems between the lads whatsoever," and that the concerns arise because "there is a lot of unemployment around here, especially in our industry. This has nothing to do with xenophobia at all." The Guardian quoted John Cummins, at a Cardiff picket, voicing a similar sentiment;
I was laid off as a stevedore two weeks ago. I've worked in Cardiff and Barry Docks for 11 years and I've come here today hoping that we can shake the government up. I think the whole country should go on strike as we're losing all British industry. But I've got nothing against foreign workers. I can't blame them for going where the work is.
However, the strikers are inadvertently promoting the nationalist take on the story by using Gordon Brown's own words, from the 2007 Labour Party Conference, against him. "British Jobs for British Workers," originally coined in a speech about equipping the long-term unemployed for skilled jobs and reducing unemployment amongst the British, not discriminating against migrant workers, has now been appropriated by the likes of the BNP. As their support increases with the strain of the recession and the continued re-hashing of the media myth that migrants have as big a role in our economic woes as big business and the financial giants, the use of that slogan - even in its original sense - by the protesters will only exacerbate matters.

The nationalists are trying to project the image of a struggle that pits the "white working class" of Britain against the "multicultural" big-business "globalists" and the "invading army" of migrant workers. In truth, though, this is not the case. The article in The Independent also quoted unemployed steel erector Tim Wood, who said "foreign workers are welcome to come if it is to fill a skills gap but this is just exploitation of cheaper European labour." This comment, like those above, offers a glimpse of the true nature of this struggle, as does the walkout in August by workers at a new nuclear power station in Plymouth. This strike, against the employment of Polish workers over British at lower wages, was joined by some of the Polish workers in question. Migrant workers are not here to undermine British jobs and wages, but to escape exactly the same economic hurdles in their own countries, and the employers are exploiting both groups. The problem is an economic one faced by the working class as a whole, and by offering only division along national lines the BNP and their counterparts present no credible alternative to this problem.

That is why now, more than ever, a strong, united, and credible working class movement has to take the lead in speaking out against both the perpetrators of the present crisis and those who would cynically exploit it for their own gain.

We are not faced with problems for the British caused by immigrants, as the right would have us believe, but with a crisis faced by working class people across the globe as a result of the deregulation of the markets in favour of big business. Those of us who believe in the right of the working classes to be free from the control of both state and capital now face a battle on two fronts.

We need to make greater efforts towards organising the working class for its own defence, both within the trade union framework and in the wider context of radical-left class solidarity. In doing so, we must revive the activism and passion of the labour movement to the levels evoked by the miners strike of 1984-5 or the actions of the Liverpool Dockers in the 90s. Only by reversing the decline in union membership and activity and standing together in unity can we hope to face the struggle ahead with any real chance of victory.

At the same time we need to rise up and speak out against the moves by the nationalists of the far-right, such as the British National Party here in the UK, to capitalise on the discontent generated by the downturn and draw racial division and resentment out of an issue rooted in class and economics. We need to win the war of ideas by actively and openly refuting their myths, oppose all pandering to their agenda by government, and - as a great many did in Liverpool today - match their numbers on the streets in protest.

We are now faced with a year that could potentially define our future. If we sit back and do nothing, then either the incumbent economic order will right itself and assert an even tighter stranglehold upon the working classes of all nations, or we face the prospect of a nationalist government that is not only committed to "reversing the tide of non-white immigration and to restoring ... the overwhelmingly white makeup of the British population" but also overwhelmingly authoritarian and unflinchingly intolerant of dissent. If we are to have a greater choice than that between neo-fascism and unrestrained capitalism then clearly we need to organise and mobilise before it is too late.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Looking for "hope" and "change" in Palestine

As I wrote immediately after his election victory, whatever the prospects of positive change in other areas, Barack Obama's presidency offers little different to that of George Bush and his predecessors when it comes to foreign policy - particularly the Middle East and Israel. This is reflected in the policy statement on the subject on Obama's campaign website;
  • Ensure a Strong U.S.-Israel Partnership: Barack Obama and Joe Biden strongly support the U.S.-Israel relationship, believe that our first and incontrovertible commitment in the Middle East must be to the security of Israel, America's strongest ally in the Middle East. They support this closeness, stating that that the United States would never distance itself from Israel.
  • Support Israel's Right to Self Defense: During the July 2006 Lebanon war, Barack Obama stood up strongly for Israel's right to defend itself from Hezbollah raids and rocket attacks, cosponsoring a Senate resolution against Iran and Syria's involvement in the war, and insisting that Israel should not be pressured into a ceasefire that did not deal with the threat of Hezbollah missiles. He and Joe Biden believe strongly in Israel's right to protect its citizens.
  • Support Foreign Assistance to Israel: Barack Obama and Joe Biden have consistently supported foreign assistance to Israel. They defend and support the annual foreign aid package that involves both military and economic assistance to Israel and have advocated increased foreign aid budgets to ensure that these funding priorities are met. They have called for continuing U.S. cooperation with Israel in the development of missile defense systems.
Of course, it can be argued that such statements were a neccesity in the election campaign, as he could not have won without a strong line on Israel. It should also be noted that the closure of Guantanamo Bay and his appointment of George Mitchell, who helped to negotiate the current peace in Northern Ireland, as the US envoy for the Middle East peace process represents an overt change of direction. The fact that his first calls to foreign leaders once in office were to Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, President Mubarak of Egypt, Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, and King Abdullah of Jordan also demonstrates a commitment to reaching a peace that Bush simply did not have.

That said, there remain many indications that the new administration's agenda is not as radical as needed. The above policy statement has now been transplanted - word for word - to the White House website. The new President's pre-inauguration silence on the Israeli bombardment and invasion of Gaza appeared almost as agreement with Bush's tacit support of the situation. There has yet been no mention of talking to Hamas. Indeed, the statement from Press Secretary Robert Gibbs suggested that the long-practied - and utterly fruitless - tactic of trying to muscle them out remained on the cards;
[Obama has a] commitment to active engagement in pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace from the beginning of his term.

In the aftermath of the Gaza conflict, he emphasised his determination to work to help consolidate the ceasefire by establishing an effective anti-smuggling regime to prevent Hamas from rearming, and facilitating, in partnership with the Palestinian Authority, a major reconstruction effort.
Such talk demonstrates the mindset that Hamas are an enemy not to be reasoned with under any circumstances. This attitude is perfectly understandable from ordinary citizens, not least those Israelis in the range of their rockets, but it is not unreasonable to expect a wider perspective from global players. Whatever their reputation, one I fully agree with given their amoral actions and stance, the fact remains that they are the leaders of the Gaza strip, and became such by way of unequivocally free and fair elections. As such, sidelining them invariably means sidelining all Gazans, from which we will never see any lasting peace.

No, if he is to be effective in achieving "an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics" as stated in his inaugural address, then the focus must be on winning what he himself referred to as "the battle of ideas."

The Palestinians have turned towards Hamas, and more generally many Muslims have turned to Islamism, because they see nobody else speaking out for them or willing to take action in their favour. This, in the end, is the only way we stand any chance of stopping extremism. The Palestinians are suffering and dying daily, even with the most recent conflict over, from an economic blockade to which the credit crisis pales in comparison, shoved together in an overcrowed strip of desolate land without adequate food or medicine, and waiting for death.

If there is to be any hope, we must show them that they don't have to turn to madmen with rocket launchers in order to find people willing to stand up for them.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

A storm in a teacup

The video of Harry Windsor referring to a member of his platoon as "our little Paki friend" continue to be the subject of intense media scrutiny. Should he be disciplined? How has the soldier in question's family responded? What does the Asian community feel about this?

The sub-debate that has arisen of whether or not the word "Paki" is racist is interesting - its etymology and original uses answers that with a firm "yes," as it originated not as an abbreviation but as a derogatory term for all from the Indian subcontinent - but it misses the point entirely. As does the dominant question of the main debate, especially after the frenzy over his attending a fancy dress party as a Nazi soldier: is Harry a racist?

The answer to that last question is no. Harry Windsor is not racist. He's foolish, outspoken, and restless, yes, but that is to be expected.

He was born into a prison that, superficially, all of us would aspire to but, when examined, nobody would envy. He is, essentially, a "spare" - his only role in life is to step up to the throne if William dies. Meanwhile, his entire life is lived and scrutinised through a media lens. A lens that not only distorts rather mundane teeenage experiences - smoking weed, daft jokes like the Nazi uniform, underage drinking - out of all proportions, but one that in fact killed his mother. He has been surrounded by sycophants at every turn, rendering him unable to truly learn the basic etiquette of human interaction, and "protected" from the dangers of life, whether they be the risk of dying in war or of being cautioned by the police for possession of a spliff. He can never take an ordinary job, and can only take the one he was born for in the event of substantial losses within his family. He has been born into the "Royal" family, and as such moulded into a wretched creature we can only vaguely recognise as human.

The same is true of all the Windsors - look into their lives and history and you will see deep psychological torment resulting from the very fact of their birth. The monarchy is nothing but a cruel rack upon which to torture very vulnerable people, based on nothing more than what womb they sprang from.

This - aside from the obvious points of it being undemocratic, feudal, outdated, irrelevant to the 21st century, etc - is a very powerful argument in favour of its abolition.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Even if this is the end of the battle, the war still rages on

As many feared, the bombing campaign against the people of Gaza by the Israeli Defence Force turned out to be just the first stage. Seven days after the attacks began, the IDF entered Gaza in force and split the region in two. The death toll is now well beyond five hundred for the Palestinians, whilst just eight Israelis have died. Now, however, the end of this particular conflict may be in sight. As it did six months ago with the ceasefire whose end signalled the start of this battle, Egypt has stepped in and is attempting to broker a truce between the two parties.

If indeed Israel has agreed "on the principles" of the truce and Hamas is seeing "positive signs," then the main concern now is "to get the details to match the principles," in the words of Israeli spokesman Mark Regev. And there is cause for optimism. Even if it resumed the bombing almost immediately afterward, the IDF's three-hour ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid to reach the Gazans must be seen as a positive given the previous uncompromising stance of their leaders in Tel Aviv.

However, any optimism on this front must of course be muted. The fighting still rages on, and Israeli tactics and attitudes towards the Palestinians remain terribly inhumane, as demonstrated by the Red Cross's accusations after discovering Palestinian children clinging to the corpses of their mothers, and of course the 18-month long blockade of Gaza continues. World Vision has reported its fears for the psychological health of children there, and the humanitarian crisis caused by the blockade has only worsened in the wake of the invasion.

As reported by Chinaview, the cease-fire already faces problems because of the contrasting demands of the two sides:
The Egyptian proposal contains the following points: firstly, Israel and the Palestinian factions should accept an immediate truce for a limited period, during which time safe corridors for relief supplies into Gaza would be opened.
The initiative then invites Israelis and Palestinians to meet to discuss how to avoid a resumption of fighting, including securing the borders and lifting the blockade of Gaza, which Israel says rocket and mortar attacks by Hamas have forced it to impose.
Egypt would also invite the Palestinian Authority and all Palestinian factions to respond to its efforts to achieve Palestinian reconciliation, which Cairo has failed to broker so far.
However, the proposal seems to be some distance away from what Israel has demanded in return for a ceasefire.
"We will hold our fire under two conditions: one is an end to the arms smuggling from Sinai (Egypt) into Gaza, and the other is the cessation of all terror activity, not just the rocket fire," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Tuesday.
Israel has also asked for an international border crossing with Gaza and a halt to weapons supplies to Hamas through tunnels along the border with Egypt.
The priority now must be to put all these conditions together. Clearly, Israel will not end its operation whilst rocket attacks by Hamas continue. However, just as clearly, the rocket attacks will not cease until the blockade ends and the people of Gaza have access to adequate food and medical supplies. As the prime aggressor in this conflict - rejecting the renewal of the ceasefire last month, organising the blockade, and enacting collective punishment against an entire people - the onus must be on Israel to take the first step. If that condition is not there, then all hopes for a future peace, fragile as they already are, may be irretrievably lost.