Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

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Shaped by War: Photographs by Don McCullin

In Editorial on October 21, 2010 at 3:36 pm

Victoria Art Gallery, by Pulteney Bridge, Bath, 11 September to 21 November 2010

‘Photography for me is not looking, it’s feeling. If you can’t feel what you’re looking at, then you’re never going to get others to feel anything when they look at your pictures.’

Don McCullin in Sleeping with Ghosts


Don McCullin, who shortly celebrates his 75th birthday, is one of the world’s most acclaimed photographers. For 50 years his photographs have shaped our awareness of modern conflict and its consequences. As a photojournalist working for The Observer and Sunday Times, he covered most of the major conflicts across the world during the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, from Cyprus and Biafra to Vietnam and the Middle East. But he loathes being described as a war photographer, much preferring to be designated simply as a ‘photographer’, albeit one shaped by the terrible events he has witnessed, many of which continue to haunt him to this day.

McCullin’s work continues to be influenced by his experiences. He photographs the landscapes around his Somerset home, but only in winter; in 2000 and 2004 he documented the Aids epidemic in Africa for Christian Aid;  and last year he completed a project photographing the boundaries of the Roman Empire.

Shaped by War explores McCullin’s story and sets his work in context. As well as including 110 of his hand-printed photographs covering the whole of his 50-year career, the show also features personal memorabilia that have not been seen before. These include the US army helmet and boots he wore in Vietnam, the expulsion order banning him from working in Idi Amin’s Uganda, and A Nikon F3 camera that took a bullet in Cambodia, thus saving McCullin’s life.

The exhibition is free to everybody and there are also free audioguides providing a personal tour of the exhibition from Don McCullin.

A major book accompanies the show and can be purchased from the Gallery (£25 plus p&p).

www.victoriagal.org.uk

All images (c) Don McCullin, courtesy of the Victoria Gallery

{this article constitutes a press release of the exhibition – watch out for a future WEB ONLY Clarion article on Don McCullin}

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The Limits of Violence

In Guest Feature on October 21, 2010 at 3:27 pm

Through the example of Baader Meinhof, Richard Huffman from Seattle, USA questions violence as a serious means of social protest.

When I marched in the November 30, 1999 anti-WTO rally here in my hometown of Seattle, the brutal tactics and sporadic yet stunning violence by the Seattle Police felt eerily similar to a catastrophic Berlin protest a generation ago. On June 2, 1967 tens of thousands of young Germans, many of them students at Berlin’s Free University, lined up on Kaiser Wilhelm Strasse early in the evening to protest a visit by the Shah of Iran. By the end of that night, however, a young pacifist lay dead, shot by the police.

After the rally, thousands of angry, frustrated students converged at the Berlin offices of the leading student organisation – the Socialist German Student Union. Among those present was a young woman called Gudrun Ensslin who declared “This fascist state means to kill us all! We must organize resistance. Violence is the only way to answer violence. This is the Auschwitz Generation, and there’s no arguing with them!”

This article looks at Gudrun’s exclamation asking whether her experience offers us a warning as to the limits to violence just as there are limits to our consent.

While leader of the Socialist Student Union – “Red” Rudi Dutschke – was sympathetic to Ensslin’s goals he proposed “a long march through the institutions”. For her part, Ensslin went on to form the Red Army Faction – the “Baader-Meinhof Gang”.

During the next decade Ensslin, intent on bringing a form of Socialist Revolution to Germany, and the 50 or so young Germans who joined her and her boyfriend Andreas Baader, embarked on a campaign of bloody terror throughout West Germany. The R.A.F. blew up symbols of capitalism like department stores; killed American soldiers and high-ranking figures on the West German Supreme Court. They kidnapped wealthy and influential German industrialists, blew up the German embassy in Stockholm and high-jacked a Lufthansa jet.

Others meanwhile chose the path of Rudi Dutschke instead.

In time it was these activists who built a new progressive German environmental movement that went on to found the Green Party in 1979 and, twenty years later, sharing Government in coalition with the SPD.

The Baader-Meinhof gang’s adherence to violence made a considerable impact on German society. At first their actions held the support of a new post-war generation. Polls showed an extraordinary number of Germans supported their cause in one way or another: 20 percent of Germans under the age of 30 expressed “a certain sympathy” for the Baader-Meinhof Gang; one in ten young northern Germans indicated they would willingly shelter a member for the night.

But as the violence increased empathy decreased. Before their pursuits West Germany had no national police force as such and it was in response to their terror campaign, the BKA (which later became the German equivalent of the FBI) was created. Instead of progressing social justice their actions lead the German government to pass sweeping laws that restricted the rights of average citizens; instituted loyalty oaths for all civil servants, and random general searches of peoples’ homes was not uncommon. And yet this was exactly what the R.A.F. hoped would happen.

They anticipated German state repression and expected it to be applied with disproportionate violence. Their hope was the proletariat would be shocked from their complacency and would spontaneously rise up in revolution.

Instead the German population, angered and frightened by the violence, applauded their government’s repressive response. Seven million ‘Wanted’ posters were printed.

Within five days of their May 1972 week of terror, all the ring-leaders were in jail. Within five years they were all dead. After an airplane hijacking by Palestinian comrades failed to secure the release of the three imprisoned leaders of the Baader-Meinhof Gang, Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, and Jan-Carl Raspe all committed suicide deep in the night of October 17, 1977.

Activists marched on Berlin in 1967 in anger. Out of that anger came Baader-Meinhof. Their rage sought to change German society but failed. Now their generations’ “long march through the institutions” has borne fruit: in 2003 when much of the West marched to Stop the War on Iraq, Germans marched in support of their Government and their decision not to participate in it.

©2010 Copyright the author. Sourced & edited by C. Spiby; this article first appeared as two articles and in a different form in Satya magazine, March 2004.

REVIEW (Take Two #2): ‘The Survivalists’

In C.Spiby, Reviews on October 21, 2010 at 3:20 pm

A variant on our ‘Double Take’ theme (where two different reviewers consider the same text), the ‘Take Two’ series of reviews consider two different texts covering remarkably similar themes. This time Carl Spiby complements his earlier look at Tobias Jones’ ‘Utopian Dreams: a search for a better life’ with ‘The Survivalists’ by Patrick Rivers and the passage of 32 intervening years.

In this second of my ‘Take Two’ series, I am looking at the topic of ‘communes’ or, to use the modern moniker ‘intentional communities’ – though I’ll refer to the former. With 32 years between these two texts, one might expect the cultural and political changes to leap out at you. But in this case they don’t.

The very thing that drives the study undertaken by Tobias Jones in his modern book is the same reason why all communities in Rivers’ 1975 book came into being. Quoting from ‘The Survivalists’ this being the observation that…

“Within our imposed society we concentrate on stimulating wants – which can never be satisfied – to the neglect of satisfying needs. Denied this basic satisfaction, we try to forget the loss – by chasing after more and more wants.”

To counter this, as one of the commune-starters states, they instead envisage a community which would…

“…seek to provide new technology for people who wish to live in harmony with their environment, in peace with their neighbours, and in control of their lives and their technology.”

The focus on alternative technology is far more pressing in the Rivers’ book but I imagine that these people would have been the vanguard of the new green technology. Of course, by the time we reach the communities that Jones’ visits in his 21st Century book, these technologies have created a growth sector of their own and are even courted by government to bolster their green credentials (while, I sardonically note, also pursuing nuclear power as a green alternative!) and, thus, they are accepted as the norm. Indeed, there’s no need to even mention it once we’ve established that part of the philosophy for the very being of a community is to reduce one’s impact on the environment and opt-out of ‘the system’.

Oddly, however, the title reveals an urgency in the need for breaking away from straight society in ‘The Survivors’ whereas with ‘Utopian Dreams’ that urgency is dealt with as a matter of fact, but with enough room to build dreams.

You may recall that my admiration of the Jones’ book was limited. Unfortunately, Rivers’ text is no more compelling but, like the Jones book, the topic enough keeps one going. In fact, I slightly favour the passing glimpses of reality in the ‘The Survivalists’ missing from ‘Utopian Dreams’. Take this example where Rivers is impressed by…

“…the intense and strenuous 7-days-a-week activity, but I suspect that there may be too much of it; for although the pressures of straight society are noticeably absent, people admit to feeling guilty about taking time off. If a member wants to relax, in his room, or in one of the communal rooms, or on a hillside, even though he is perfectly entitled to do so, nevertheless it is difficult for him not to feel that he is shirking, and he sense that the rest of the group feel that he ought to be doing something.”

The problem is that passages such as these are in the minority and the narrator tends to wander through communities, his interviews and even his own points so casually as to render the majority of his observations instantly forgettable.

This is a pity as there are little gems in here. Some which present the case for community living elegantly, like the interview with Berkeley University architect Sim van Der Ryn who says:

“…a home you’ve made yourself is like home-baked bread is to bought bread. It’s all part of a need people have to create more of the substance of their lives.”

Well put.

Then, at a different juncture a defender of communes tries to contextualise the move from straight society to communal living. Hence, (paraphrasing here) remove from your own home all furniture but a few blankets, a mat, table and chair. Then remove virtually all the food from the pantry leaving only a small bag of flour, some sugar, salt, a few potatoes and a handful of dried beans; dismantle the bathroom; disconnect all electricity; cancel all papers and move the family to a tool shed. They may as well add get the neighbours to move in too – and yet, this communard reports from their Californian retreat that despite these reduction in possessions, comforts and services happiness abounds as does a lack of all the diseases of modernity: depression, anxiety, loneliness, restlessness and misanthropic tendencies.

Really? I think this naïve exchange demonstrates the penchant for early commune-dwellers to strive for a reduction to medievalism; a reputation which I feel has blighted the movement ever since. Secondly, I’d like to see evidence to back up the assertions purported here that communal living clears one of all those anxieties. Although I’d like to think it true, my scepticism is raising alarm bells. It’s not proper journalism but mere opinion.

Another problem with the communes discussed in both books is that the main-players all seem middle class. Take this passage from ‘The Survivalists’:-

“The group which set up the commune comprised two architects, a management consultant, an advertising agency executive, an interior designer, a computer systems analyst, a civil engineer, two teachers and a medical laboratory technician….”

Not a single prole among them.

And this isn’t inverse class prejudice but an observation of those discussed in both texts. This suggests that communes of this nature are mostly started and run by a certain section of the middle class. Probably of, I imagine, a certain intellect and persuasion. For they have the means, the education and the profession to make it do-able, but it calls me to question the sincerity and longevity of such projects. Indeed, all the communes I Googled from the 1975 book no longer existed, whereas all those in ‘Utopian Dreams’ communes did. But will they in 2040?

‘The Survivalists’ is definitely a book about building new communities with those seeking to escape the modern technocratic society. ‘Utopian Dreams’ isn’t utopian at all – I suspect it was the name assigned the project by its publishers – but it too seeks to escape though it parades as trying to build anew. Such is the positivism of modern era, which I often find hides some of the actual truth of a situation.

I favour ‘The Survivalists’ more pragmatic approach, but ‘Utopian Dreams’ was a better source of intellectual ideas and justifications for communal living. So on this journey of these two books have I learned much?

Yes – but probably nothing conclusively. Answers to the big questions just aren’t that easy, I guess.

“GOODNIGHT IRENE”…

In A.Graham on October 21, 2010 at 3:07 pm

Still sung on the football pitches today, this 1950s hit song was caught up in the McCarthyite phobia of the time. But was it the singers or the song?

The song, Goodnight Irene, performed by the Weavers, topped the British hit parade back in 1950. Yet, today, unless you’re a Bristol Rovers’ fan, it’s now just a distant memory.

Rovers fans at their Eastville ground adopted it as their anthem when it was high in the hit parade – and when the team was going through a successful run in the FA Cup (until they were knocked out by Newcastle United. In those days Newcastle was riding high in the first division, whilst Rovers languished in the old third division south). But over half a century later, loyal supporters are still singing it.

Few of those supporters, though, will be aware of the politics of the time when Goodnight Irene was first sung and recorded in the USA. As the 1950s dawned, anti-Communism was rife in America, and Anti-Red “witch hunts” were the order of day. The “Un-American Activities Committee” chaired by the notorious Senator Joseph McCarthy was conducting a root and branch purge of suspected Communists – and the Weavers were on his list.

The Weavers were a popular left wing music group, formed in 1949. Amongst their members was the legendary Pete Seeger and Lee “Tubby” Hays.

Goodnight Irene had originally been performed by Leadbelly (a black former convict turned folk singer).

His version of the song was much more edgy than the one performed by the Weavers, who removed all references to drugs from the lyrics that they sang.

About that time, the Weavers were signed up by Decca records. It was their big breakthrough – and amongst the songs they recorded was Good Night Irene. It was soon climbing high in the US hit parade, before crossing the Atlantic to Britain.

KOREA – AND ANTI-RED PARANOIA: In June 1950, the Korean war erupted. Suddenly the USA saw itself as being at war with the Communists. The paranoia reached fever pitch, even affecting the entertainment industry. The Weavers had their TV series abruptly cancelled – but, for a while, their songs still topped the hit parade – including Goodnight Irene.


In August 1951, FBI files on the Weavers were leaked – and the group was investigated for sedition. One of their songs, Rock Island Line (recorded in Britain by Lonnie Donegan), was regarded by the FBI as reflecting the Communist Party line!

The music played by the Weavers wasn’t particularly threatening – and certainly those who bought their records weren’t that bothered about any “subversive” content. But the FBI was determined to find “reds” under every stone they turned over.

As the Government-inspired blacklist on the Weavers become public, members of the group found that they were forced to justify their music. In such a hostile climate, it wasn’t easy. Then, in February 1952, a witness appearing before the Un-American Activities Committee testified that three of the Weavers were members of the Communist Party. It was, of course, a lie. But the Weavers were forced to disband.

Two victims of the anti-Communist paranoia at the time were Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.

They were sentenced to death on a charge of treason – and after a long, worldwide, campaign to save their lives, they were finally sent to the electric chair in 1952. Reportedly they asked to hear Good Night Irene one last time, before they faced their execution.

As a footnote, the song was sung by Billy Bragg at Tolpuddle last year – much to the displeasure of a small group of Bristol City supporters! But no doubt it resonated with Billy Bragg in a way that it doesn’t necessarily with loyal Rovers’ supporters. For them, it’s simply their song!

AG

OBITUARY: Ken Coates

In Obiturary on October 21, 2010 at 3:02 pm

IDEAS – AND ACTION

KEN COATES, who died suddenly earlier this summer, will be sorely missed by many who campaigned with him for peace, industrial democracy – and against the humbug and corruption of modern capitalist society.

He was one of many on the left who emerged from the ferment of ideas that had such an impact on radical politics in the 1960s. Many of those who were involved have since fallen by the wayside, or veered to the right, and the cover of respectability. Ken Coates, though, maintained his principles to the end, though he adapted his ideas to the changing times and changing circumstances in the decades that followed.

His major contributions were to the nuclear disarmament movement, and to the development of ideas on industrial democracy. He helped to establish the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation and, with colleagues, campaigned for a “nuclear free Europe”. Through meetings and conferences this brought him into touch with many leading campaigners throughout Europe – including some in the emerging Green movement.

Ken also served for ten years as a Labour MEP, using the European Parliament to promote and develop his ideas.

But his expulsion from the Labour Party in 1998 ended his career as a parliamentarian.

INDUSTRIAL DEMOCRACY: In the early 1970s, industry in the UK was facing dramatic change. Changing technology, an uncertain economic climate and increasing competition from abroad meant that workers were not only threatened by changing work patterns but also by the loss of their jobs. Heavy industry, particularly, was under threat, with plants facing closure and mass redundancies.

Ken Coates helped to form the Institute for Workers’ Control (IWC). Through its publications and through conferences, its ideas were spread throughout the trade union movement and beyond.

Many trade unionists were coming to realise that strike action wasn’t enough in the face of factory closures and mass redundancies. An example was in Scotland where Upper Clyde Shipyards were facing closure. A mass “work in” by the workforce led by Jimmy Reid and Jimmy Airlie in 1971 forced an about-turn by the Government which provided funds to keep the shipyards open – at least for a while.

Meanwhile the IWC was developing ideas for alternative production in firms and factories facing closure. Out of this came the plan drawn up by Lucas Aerospace shop stewards, for the production of socially useful goods. Again, it attracted popular support – but not from the management at Lucas!

Attending conferences of the IWC was always an interesting and stimulating experience. Those who attended came from a wide spectrum of the left – with the trade union movement always well represented. For some, the notion of industrial democracy meant (as they say these days) “thinking outside the box”. Others, like Hugh Scanlon and Jack Jones, worked closely with Ken Coates to try to bring democracy to decision making in industry. It involved attempting to create a trade union response that went beyond constant opposition to a recalcitrant and self-seeking management!

WORKER CO-OPS: But the ideas that flowed out from the IWC (not to mention the example of the Upper Clyde work-in) stimulated a new interest in worker co-operatives. Amongst those who was influenced by the trend was Tony Benn, who had been a Government minister. It was he that gave backing to three worker co-ops – at Triumph motorcycles, The Scottish Daily News and Bendix washing machines. Sadly, all three failed (though it’s significant that Triumph survived under private ownership, and today is the only major UK motorcycle manufacturer still in business). But many other worker co-operatives that came into being at the time continue to this day – and more are still being formed as workers attempt to control their own destinies.

Ken’s other contribution was as editor of The Spokesman magazine. This was produced by a small team, including , Tony Simpson, Tony Topham and Ken Fleet on behalf of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation.

The latest issue was nearly complete when Ken died suddenly. The front cover is reproduced below. It contains tributes from those who knew him and worked with him – in Britain and throughout Europe – together with a quote from Ken himself:

“I have always believed that true socialism will be made by the people themselves, the real beneficiaries. That was the significant achievement of the Institute for Workers Control, because it encouraged people to work out their own ideas about what might constitute democracy in industry.”

(Ken Coates, June 25, 2010)

the NHS: The Tories plan to abolish the National Health Service as we know it

In A.Graham on October 21, 2010 at 2:54 pm

Don’t let the free market take over the NHS!

When the National Health Service came into being on July 5, 1948, it was the flagship of the Labour government’s plan to provide universal welfare services for those in need, “from the cradle to the grave”.

True, it was opposed by some doctors, who saw it as threatening their status, but they were accommodated into the system. For ordinary people, it was overwhelmingly popular. And remains so today .

But since the days of Margaret Thatcher we have had to fight to keep the basic principles of the Service alive. Even under the Blair Government these principles were threatened.

Few folk in the Forest will forget the fight to save the Dean’s two community hospitals from closure, in the summer of 2006. The level of protest was overwhelming. We marched, we lobbied – and eventually the then Health Minister, Patricia Hewitt, was forced to back down (Patricia Hewitt, incidentally, is now working as an adviser for the private equity company Cinven which recently bought out all of BUPA’s private hospitals).

BIGGER THREAT: Now the NHS as a whole faces an even bigger threat. Whilst previous governments have been content to chip away at its foundations, the Cameron regime plans to transform the entire structure – creating a framework of health care that will bear no resemblance to the NHS as we know it.

The Tory white paper is based on the creation of a market in health care (not unlike the system that exists in the USA). Hospitals will become independent businesses, competing with private hospitals and clinics for NHS funding.

Those hospitals that are deemed to have “failed” will either be left to go bankrupt (and thus be closed down), or be handed over to be run by private companies.

In theory GPs will run the service. This may sound attractive to some. After all those in work providing health care surely know what’s best for patients. But most doctors simply don’t have the time, the skills, or even the inclination to cope with the mass of administration involved. It will merely take them away from the work that they are dedicated to and should be doing. And as more is spent on administration, less money will actually be available for actual medical care.

And there is always the threat that as a hospital administration tries to reduce costs they will do so denying patients certain treatments. Staffing levels may also be threatened.

GOING PRIVATE: Critics of the Tory plans for the NHS see it as part of the private health industry to get its hands on the NHS budget. Effectively, we will end up with a profit-driven health care market – rather than a service dedicated to providing care free at the point of need.

Behind the Cameron “contract for a better NHS”, is an army of private health consortia and their consultants – many of them US based. The strategy is effectively to remove all hospitals from public ownership. Whether we call the results “foundation trusts” or “social enterprises”, it’s one and the same. Meanwhile, there are plans to remove many hospitals from the NHS completely and hand them to the private sector.

Of course the Health Service consists of a lot more than its hospitals. There are clinics, doctors’ surgeries, and a host of ancillary services on which many of us rely. But hospitals are the most costly – and thus, for the private sector, the most potentially lucrative.

FIGHTBACK: Already those who’re concerned with the future of the NHS are preparing to defend it. Health care unions will no doubt be in the forefront, but it’s important that any campaign gains wide public support – on the scale that we saw in the Forest of Dean in 2006.

We can be modestly proud of the level of health care provided in the Forest. Don’t let us lose it, to the sharks who are only interested in profit and don’t give a damn about welfare.

Behind the Cameron “contract for a better NHS”, is an army of private health consortia and their consultants – many of them US based. The strategy is effectively to remove all hospitals from public ownership. Whether we call the results “foundation trusts” or “social enterprises”, it’s one and the same. Meanwhile, there are plans to remove many hospitals from the NHS completely and hand them to the private sector.

Of course the Health Service consists of a lot more than its hospitals. There are clinics, doctors’ surgeries, and a host of ancillary services on which many of us rely. But hospitals are the most costly – and thus, for the private sector, the most potentially lucrative.

FIGHTBACK: Already those who’re concerned with the future of the NHS are preparing to defend it. Health care unions will no doubt be in the forefront, but it’s important that any campaign gains wide public support – on the scale that we saw in the Forest of Dean in 2006.

We can be modestly proud of the level of health care provided in the Forest. Don’t let us lose it, to the sharks who are only interested in profit and don’t give a damn about welfare.

Modern Times- the Dinosaur column

In Dinosaur on October 21, 2010 at 2:42 pm

Back from the land of the maple leaf

I’ve just returned from taking time out in the land of the beaver and maple leaf. Yes, Canada’s been calling me across the pond yet again.

For those who’re interested in the political set-up of this vast and sprawling country, Canada also has a Tory Prime Minister – and, like in the UK, he heads a minority government. But unlike here, he hasn’t formed a coalition. Instead he relies on the divisions between the opposition parties to remain in power.

The opposition consists of the Canadian Liberal Party, the left-wing New Democrats (the NDP) – and the Bloc Quebecois, who naturally enough represent the separatist elements in the province of Quebec, and thus have their own particular agenda.

Canada’s Prime Minister is one Stephen Harper – and as far as I know he’s no relation to Mark, our own MP here in the Forest. Indeed, the Canadian PM rose through the ranks of the redneck right in the province of Alberta – though I’m sure that he likes to think that he’s matured somewhat since those days.

Whilst I was there, the main political debate seemed to be centred on whether to scrap the “long gun register”. Harper and his party were keen to get rid of the legal requirement for folk to register any rifle or shotgun in their possession. When it came to the vote, he was narrowly defeated.

Somehow I couldn’t quite grasp what all the fuss was about. I don’t own a gun of any sort – and neither does any one else I know. I thought that was just for the gun-happy lobby in the USA. And anyway in Canada, anyone who really really wants a gun has to get a certificate, covering such points as why they want a firearm and whether they’re capable of using it without endangering anyone (apart, perhaps, from some hapless moose). No, I think it’s just the inner redneck emerging in Harper and his supporters.

Stimulating?

I was however interested to note that rather than tackling the recession through cutting everything that’s not nailed to the ground, the Canadian Conservatives launched what they call a stimulus package of public spending to try to re-energize the economy. Canada hasn’t suffered quite as much as some countries from the recession – though it’s all relative, I suppose.

But Harper has now announced that his stimulus package will end next year. It’s done its job, he says, and from 2011 the Canadian economy will have to stand on its own feet. The opposition, of course, aren’t happy. They think it will expose the country to the danger of a “double dip” recession – particularly as it’s so reliant on trade with its neighbour the USA these days. Me, I’m no economist, but I think they may be right.

Oil for the taking?

The debate over the havoc caused by the exploitation of Alberta’s oil tar sands has been covered several times in the Clarion. And whilst I was in Canada CBC television also gave it major coverage. The Canadian born film director, James Cameron, had, it seemed, decided to travel to the site to see for himself.

Cameron likes to see himself as an environmentalist, and he concluded that the oil companies really needed to clean up their act before any further exploitation could be regarded as acceptable. He also denounced the way in which the rights of First Nation people living in the area had been brushed aside in the scramble to exploit the oil tar reserves.

I was also interested to see some prominence given to the decision by the Co-operative Bank here in Britain to give backing to those First Nation tribal chiefs who are trying to sue the oil industry and the province over the conditions under which their people are now forced to live.

Incidentally, the USA oil industry is strongly represented amongst those exploiting the tar sands – and America now gets over half its oil from Canada. Its representatives strongly resent anyone who tries to interfere with their “right” to get its oil from Canada. After all, declared one Republican senator, its only wilderness territory up there, so who cares?

REVIEW: The Best Democracy Money Can Buy

In C. Mickleson, Reviews on October 21, 2010 at 2:32 pm

IS THIS REALLY THE “BEST DEMOCRACY” WE’RE ENTITLED TO?

CLAUDE MICKLESON reviews ‘The Best Democracy Money Can Buy’, by investigative journalist, Greg Palast.

“The Best Democracy Money Can Buy” is not a new book. It was first published in 2002. Greg Palast says that you could actually call it “What you didn’t read in the New York Times”. The author was originally from Los Angeles, and was brought up in a working class area, one rung above poverty.

He spent some time in Britain, working for the Guardian and Observer newspapers. One day he was walking down a London street and saw in a newsagents a copy of the Daily Mirror. The front page was taken up with the words “THE LIAR”, and a picture of himself. He thought, “well I’ll be damned, it doesn’t get much better than this!”

This book begins with highlights of the corrupt practices carried out in Florida, prior to the election of George W. Bush as president of the USA. He asserts that for five months before the 2000 presidential election, Jeb Bush, Governor of Florida and George’s brother, moved to purge well over 57,000 people from the voters’ register in Florida – supposedly criminals who were not allowed to vote. Most were innocent of any crimes, but most of them were guilty of being black, the majority of whom tend to vote Democrat.

He also covers the Exxon Valdez “accident” – which he asserts was no accident. Exxon just shut off the ship’s broken radar to save money, instead of repairing it. They were supported by BP and others in the group of six oil companies calling themselves “Alyeska”.

There were at least 1,200 miles of the Alaska coastline covered in black oily sludge. The local population was employed to clear up the mess and unceremoniously sacked as soon as it was done.

The evils of Globalisation are well aired. According to Palast, the world’s 300 richest people are worth more than the world’s poorest three billion in wealth terms. During the period 1983 to 1997, as much as 85 per cent of the increase in wealth in the USA went to the richest one per cent. In the words of Thomas Friedman, the beauty of globalisation is that it’s “the Golden Strait Jacket – the tighter you wear it the more gold it produces.”He also exposed a cache of secret documents from the heart of the IMF, World Bank and the WTO (they are interchangeable masks of a single governance) explaining the inner workings of the iron tangle of globalisation. Many of the dodgy dealings occurred under Bill Clinton’s watch, as well as under George Bush.

THE IRON FIST OF FINANCIAL ASSISTANCE: Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist of the World Bank, turned informer and was able to give Palast details of behind the scenes activities.

The so-called “country assistance strategy” includes the same four steps for any country getting into financial difficulties and asking for aid. They are:

  • One, privatisation.
  • Two, capital market liberalisation.
  • Three, “IMF Riot” – squeeze the economy until it causes riots (any demonstrations dispersed with bullets, tear gas and tanks) so that they can clamp down even harder.
  • And, four, free trade.

Palast describes these details as four steps to domination. It’s a bit like blood letting in the Middle Ages: when the patient died, they would say “well, he stopped the blood letting too soon. He still had a drop left in him.” Did any nation avoid this fate? Strangely enough, one did. Botswana told the IMF to pack its bags.

A whole range of examples uncover corporate greed in action. Monsanto, for example, doesn’t come out of it very well. Palast tells of cows fed genetically-altered hormones dripping pus into buckets of milk which eventually entered the food chain. And he quotes a former Texas Agricultural Commissioner as saying: “they used to complain about Monsanto’s lobbying of government. Now they are the government.”

Palast also looks at the California power shortage, and the suggestion that nuclear power stations should be built to augment supplies – in an area notorious for earthquakes. Energy operators, Enron, TXU, Dynergy and El Paso corporations contributed 4.1 million dollars to the Republican presidential campaign. “They didn’t have long to wait before their investment – excuse me, donation – paid off big time. Just three days after the Republican’s inauguration.”

Also, Government chiefs stopped key investigations into allegations of funding for Al Qaeda and the Bin Laden family by the Saudis. They were ordered to back away from any investigations into the Saudi royals.

In another example, the government of Ecuador was ordered to raise the price of cooking gas by 80 per cent, eliminate 26,000 jobs and cut real wages of those remaining in work by 50 per cent. They were forced to transfer ownership of its biggest water supply system to foreign operators. And then they had to grant BP’s Arco unit rights to build and own an oil pipeline over the Andes. All this happened under Bill Clinton’s administration. Meanwhile, Argentina was presented with a “technical memorandum of understanding” which nearly bled it dry. Amongst other restrictions it was forced to adopt an “open trade policy” causing the country to lose as much as 750 million dollars a day.

The many revelations in this book have helped me to understand much better many of the things that have been going on in the world during the years I have been politically aware. The book has been well worth reading.

The Gathering Storm

In Editorial on October 21, 2010 at 2:17 pm

A lot can happen in a couple of months – particularly when we have a new Government that wants to give the appearance of hitting the ground running. This makes it difficult, in a bi-monthly publication like the Clarion to keep up to date with developments.

In particular it’s difficult for us to comment specifically on where the Tory/Lib Dem axe will fall, or on the impact it will undoubtedly have on public services, and on those who rely on them.

As this issue is being prepared, Government Departments are busy calculating where, and indeed how, they can cut back on their budgets. The specifics will only be known later in October when the Chancellor presents his budget review.

Already, the Trades Union Congress has warned that the scale of the proposed cuts will hit the poorest in society ten times harder than the rich (indeed, those in the richest top ten per cent of our society won’t even notice). Health, social and education services that the bulk of us rely on are set to be slashed. According to TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber, “it’s a real threat to social cohesion. Public services are a part of the glue that holds society together… When you start weakening the seams you threaten the fabric of society.”

The TUC report was carefully researched and costed – based on the broad brush stroke figures available at the time. If they are as drastic as Chancellor George Osborne suggests then indeed we are in for a rough time. He has claimed that they are “necessary”, and denies that there’s anything ideological about them. As far as the Clarion’s concerned, his protestations need to be taken with a very large pinch of salt. It’s fair to say that there are many in the Tory Party who will be only too delighted to see savage cuts in the public sector. After all, according to their ideology, it’s the social services that drain the economy, create a strata in our society of “scroungers” and act as a brake on self-reliance and wealth creation.

At present, the Government still seems to be enjoying a honeymoon period (if opinion polls are anything to go by). It would appear to be maintaining a higher level of public support than we would expect, considering the impact that its cuts – and, indeed, its welfare reforms – are likely to have on all of us. But with the storm clouds gathering, this may not last.

Meanwhile, the various players in this unfolding drama have been meeting for their respective autumn conferences. Delegates to the TUC, meeting in September, were concerned to develop a strategy to build a broad coalition to fight the cuts when they materialise. On the other hand,  the Labour Party was mainly busy with the necessary task of electing a new leader – one who should, as leader of the opposition, be the focal point for the Parliamentary fight against Conservative cuts and Government policies to re-shape the public sector (plans to privatise the NHS and sell off the Post Office, for example). As for the Tories, they had a lot of back-slapping to do – whilst trying to project a general air of “purpose”.

An opposition to the cuts is gradually coalescing. Interest groups, individuals, trade unions are all beginning to make their views known. How effective they will be we’ll soon find out. In the meantime, let’s prepare for the storm.

Endpiece: An obsession with public debt

Why is the new Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, so obsessed with the fear of public debt?

At the Tory conference he declared that cuts in public spending had to be both fast and deep, to avoid a decade of debt.

Private debt is a different matter. Too many people during the heady years of consumer spending got themselves so heavily into debt that they had no means to pay back what they owed. However, when it comes to a government we are effectively talking about “deferred payment”.

Ironically, George Osborne made his declaration just after it was announced that Germany had finally paid of debts imposed on it after the First World War. True, there were exceptional circumstances. For example, Hitler had his own way with debts. He unilaterally cancelled them.

But Britain emerged from the Second World War up to its ears in debt. It took decades to pay off all that we owed (mainly to the USA). But that didn’t prevent the 1945 Labour Government from building the basis of the welfare state. The National Health Service, universal secondary education and the largest programme of council house building that we’ve known came from that Government. Even then there were those in the Tory ranks who declared that we “couldn’t afford it”. The Beveridge plan and the welfare state would have to be put on hold. But Attlee’s Government saw the building of a new Britain as a priority. And it was the efforts made then that laid the ground for the prosperity most of us enjoyed in the 1950s and 1960s.

There must be few countries today that aren’t in debt to some extent. But different countries have different ways of dealing with it. Few of them have taken the road followed by George Osborne. Most have attempted at least to protect the social fabric of their societies.

There’s more to the notion of debt than the simplistic sums of Chancellor Osborne. Despite the ravages wrought by the bankers, we are not in the position of, say, Greece or Iceland. But for the ideologs in the Tory Party, cutting public spending by up to 40 per cent is a convenient way of cutting the public sector down to the size they want it to be – even if they are wielding a blunt instrument.

To return to the analogy of private debt, a family buying a house on a twenty year mortgage shouldn’t expect to be impoverished as a result. But if they’re expected to pay it all off within five years, that’s a different matter.

REVIEW: Silent Spring

In R.Richardson, Reviews on October 21, 2010 at 2:10 pm

A VOICE FROM THE PAST:

RUTH RICHARDSON re-visits Rachel Carson’s classic work, “Silent Spring”, first published in 1962, and re-printed many times since.

Seldom do we review a book that is almost fifty years old. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, may well be familiar to some Clarion readers. It still has immense relevance for us in the 21st Century and remains the mainspring for the whole ecological movement.

It’s hard for us in these environmentally-conscious times to comprehend that in the first half of the 20th Century, those who raised doubts about our exploitation of the planet were, in the main, considered cranks.

POISONING THE EARTH: Rachel Carson’s chief concern is the over-use of pesticides, the consequent effect on wild life and, through the food chain, on humans. In fact, the risks of spraying chemicals, especially DDT, were already known. But it took Silent Spring, written with passion and in a style accessible to us all, to alert the public to what was happening on a vast scale.

The title, “Silent Spring”, is taken from “A Fable for Tomorrow”, Carson’s opening chapter in which she sketches a community “where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings”. Then “a strange blight crept over the area”. Crops and cattle sickened and died, and noticeably, “it was a Spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus… only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.” This is a fictional community but it might, writes Carson, have its counterparts anywhere in America or indeed the rest of the world.

Pesticides and herbicides, she writes, have both immediate and long term effects. Run-off from agricultural land brings these poisons into the rivers and ultimately the sea. Some chemicals are evident in soil as long as twelve years after their application.

A DEVASTATED LANDSCAPE: Carson quotes the story of widespread spraying of sage lands, as told in “My Wilderness: East to Katahdin”, by William O. Douglas. Cattlemen had wanted more grass land for grazing. The sage was eliminated, but so too were the willows that grew along the meandering streams in the area. Moose lived in the willow thickets, beavers built dams in the streams and waterfowl flourished. A year after the spraying it had all gone, leaving a devastated landscape.

Rachel Carson quotes many more examples of spraying which have led to widespread destruction. Separate chapters deal with the effects on insects, birds, birds, fish and plant life. She also explains how these poisons move up the food chain to reach the human population. In her chapter, “The Human Price”, there is a quite technical, though interesting, section on how the human body deals with these toxins. The cumulative effect of long-term exposure is not yet known.

Carson urges the use of biological methods of control, where the natural enemies of “pests” are introduced into a problem area. She cites several instances of the successful use of such methods – for example, in Florida, Vermont and Newfoundland. In Newfoundland it was the introduction of the masked shrew to reduce the population of saw flies that threatened the growth of evergreen trees. Reports suggest that this strategy has been successful.

When Silent Spring was published, the agro-chemical industry spent a quarter of a million dollars in an attempt to denigrate Carson’s science. Their efforts only brought the book and its message more publicity. Silent Spring achieved enormous popularity and broad public support. And it was largely instrumental in the banning of DDT and similar insecticides.

CHALLENGING TIMES: More fundamentally Silent Spring encouraged people not to accept at face value what they were told by governments or so-called experts, to challenge policies and to ask questions.

Sadly Rachel Carson died in 1964, only two years after Silent Spring was published, at the age of 56.

But her message lives on.

Jeffrey Leach writes: “Carson’s call for active involvement in our environment is still an absolute necessity today as the industrial system continues its rapid march across the landscape.”