Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

Archive for March, 2013|Monthly archive page

Interview with Anarchist author & bookseller STUART CHRISTIE

In O. Adams on March 14, 2013 at 1:37 pm

Perhaps the biggest challenge anarchists face is combating all the disinformation out there about anarchism, and to educate the 99%. That’s part of the reason Forest of Dean Anarchists was set up.

Stuart Christie has been an active anarchist, through writing, publishing and action. The Glaswegian author of Granny Made Me An Anarchist, General Franco Made Me A Terrorist and Edward Heath Made Me Angry (his entertaining and inspiring three-part autobiography), and The Christie File: Enemy Of The State, first achieved notoriety in 1964, when at the age of 18 he hitch-hiked to Madrid to assassinate Franco, and was caught and imprisoned. He was freed three years later thanks to an international campaign led by Jean-Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell. In the 1970s, he and Albert Meltzer re-formed the Anarchist Black Cross association (to help political prisoners), edited the Black Flag magazine and was acquitted of being part of the Angry Brigade. He remains active in the south of England, where he runs a book publishers http://www.christiebooks.com/ChristieBooksWP/ and hopes to get funding to get an anarchist/libertarian film archive up and running again (see appeal on his site).

Do you feel that earlier anarchist methods, such as ‘propaganda by the deed’ can be effective today?

The tactic of propaganda by the deed is an essential and unchanging element in the struggle for justice and fairness. What may differ from time to time, generation to generation, is the methodology of that direct action. When called on, each new generation and/or individual finds its own way to resist tyranny or advance the struggle. Methods that, for one reason or another, were morally or technically feasible or 20 or even 10 years ago are often no longer be possible today. To paraphrase Karl Popper: because our knowledge and understanding of the world is constantly changing and evolving, especially so in our digital age, we cannot, therefore, know today what we can only know tomorrow

I have seen little evidence that the protagonists of recent movements such as the Indignados of southern Europe, the Arab Spring, and Occupy describe themselves as socialists or anarchists, yet it seems to me that their calls for direct democracy, their holding of general assemblies and call for the end of capitalism are similar, or the same, as anarcho-syndicalism. Do you agree, and if so, why do you think the words‘anarchism’ or ‘socialism’ are rarely, if ever, mentioned, and do you think they should be?

My understanding of these movements is that anarchists and libertarians were — and are — very active in these movements, indeed central to them, especially in the case of the indignados in Spain. What they didn’t do, however, quite sensibly and correctly as anarchists, is lay ideological claim to these popular movements or attempt use them as fertile organisational ‘recruiting grounds’,as inevitably occurs with the Marxist-Leninist-Trotskyist and the Islamist/Jihadist groupings. Anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists and libertarian socialists are certainly active today in Egypt, Libya and other Maghreb countries, and I’ve no doubt there are also anarchists active in the Arabian Peninsula as well. If the terms ‘anarchism’ and ‘socialism’ are rarely heard that’s possibly down to the editorial policies of the mainstream broadcast and print media who have a different agenda and prefer to focus on the Jihadist/Muslim Brotherhood threat..

It seems to me that anarchism is regarded by many as a dirty word, partly due to successful anti-anarchist propaganda, partly due to the interpretation given to it by some anarchists themselves (such as ‘the black bloc’). Would you agree with me, and how might we ‘sell’anarchism to the masses?

The words‘Anarchism’ and ‘anarchists’ have always been demonised by the mainstream media; the time to worry is when the capitalist press and state spin doctors stop using them as ‘bogeymen terms. As for ‘selling anarchism to the masses’the only way to do that is through education (spreading the Idea), inspiration— and example.

Would you consider yourself a socialist as well as an anarchist?

Yes

How hopeful, or hopeless, do you feel the anarchist struggle could be in the face of this current government?

It has never been a question of being hopeful or hopeless in the face of this or any future government/society; the struggle —with the human condition, not just the state — is forever with relentless struggle. All you can — or should — hope for along the way are a few little victories and, maybe, the occasional big one.‘History’, Seamus Heaney says ‘Don’t hope on this side of the grave. But then, once in a lifetime, the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme. So hope for a great sea-change on the far side of revenge. Believe that a further shore is reachable from here. Believe in miracles and cures and healing wells.’

If there were a general election tomorrow, would you vote, and if so, who would you vote for (if they were standing)?

No, I wouldn’t vote for a party or for an individual no matter how honourable, but I would certainly consider a protest vote against a party — or for something achievable. For example, in the Spanish elections of 1936 the anarcho-syndicalist CNT tacitly withdrew its overt opposition to participation in the parliamentary process (ie, voting) in order to force the release of 30,000 political prisoners imprisoned by the Republic over the previous three years

Do you think we could achieve a wholesale anarchist society? Could it happen transitionally or would a rapid revolution be necessary?

I’ve really no idea; what appeared to work rapidly and violently in particular places and times (e.g., Russia, 1917, and Spain, 1936) clearly, for a whole variety of reasons, didn’t endure.Similar events may happen again, who knows, all we can do is work, hopeand carry on. Even so, as, when,and if an ‘anarchist’ society comes into being we’ll still have to face the perennial problems of co-existence human beings have faced since time immemorial. One saving grace we should have — as anarchists — is that we’d hope to be more realistic and conscious of our human failings, shortcomings and limitations, particularly with regard to the corrupting influence of the exercise of power. However, I am an optimist and I share the view of American psychologist William James” ‘The ceaseless whisper of the more permanent ideals, the steady tug of truth and justice, give them but time, MUST warp the world in their direction.’

Do you think that a. the NHS, b. Social security, c. police, d. military, could continue to function, or would be necessary, in an anarchist society?

An anarchist society is and always will be an aspiration, an ideal —a ‘star’ to follow — one that provides us with an ethical code, a moral barometer and a libertarian political template for our everyday lives. If and when a social revolutionary situation recurs again (in this country or anywhere) the role of the anarchist will be to do what they can to ensure that the social institutions required to ensure that any human society (including health and welfare,and security/defence services), function justly, fairly and as conflict-free as is humanly possible, are — and remain — fundamentally democratic, libertarian and answerable to the community. It’s not about achieving Nirvana or a Utopia, only religious zealots and ideological fundamentalists believe in the ‘rapture’ that creates the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, or the ‘last fight’ mentioned in ‘The Internationale’. Anarchists appreciate only too well how ‘imperfect’ human beings are and, doubtless always will be, which is why they reject institutionalised power structures as the bedrock for the creation of oligarchies (well-meaning or otherwise) and the corrupting of the body politic.

What examples can you think of as anarchy in action today?

Can’t think of any offhand, specifically, but I’m sure your readers can come up with lots of examples of voluntary self-help and direct organisations and bodies that would fit into the category of ‘anarchy in action’.

Can laissez-faire capitalists/ the US Libertarian Party be considered as anarchists?

Not in the slightest. These people are minimal statists, the minimal part being the defence and advancement of self-interest and property rights — and not even‘enlightened’ self-interest.

Have your ideas changed much over the decades, and if so, how?

Yes, my thoughts and views on lots of things have changed over the years, which is inevitable as you acquire more knowledge through different experiences, and meeta wide variety of people with different views on life to your own — and of course reading, TV, cinema, the internet, etc.. But my anarchist view of the world remains fundamentally unchanged, ie – see the following:

What is anarchism?

Anarchism is the movement for social justice through freedom. It is concrete, democratic and egalitarian. It has existed and developed since the seventeenth century, with a philosophy and a defined outlook that have evolved and grown with time and circumstance. Anarchism began as what it remains today: a direct challenge by the underprivileged to their oppression and exploitation. It opposes both the insidious growth of state power and the pernicious ethos of possessive individualism, which, together or separately, ultimately serve only the interests of the few at the expense of the rest.

Anarchism promotes mutual aid, harmony and human solidarity, to achieve a free, classless society – a cooperative commonwealth. Anarchism is both a theory and practice of life. Philosophically, it aims for perfect accord between the individual, society and nature. In an anarchist society, mutually respectful sovereign individuals would be organised in non-coercive relationships within naturally defined communities in which the means of production and distribution are held in common.

Anarchists, are not simply dreamers obsessed with abstract principles. We know that events are ruled by chance, and that people’s actions depend much on long-held habits and on psychological and emotional factors that are often anti-social and usually unpredictable. We are well aware that a perfect society cannot be won tomorrow. Indeed, the struggle could last forever! However, it is the vision that provides the spur to struggle against things as they are, and for things that might be.

Whatever the immediate prospects of achieving a free society, and however remote the ideal, if we value our common humanity then we must never cease to strive to realise our vision. If we settle for anything less, then we are little more than beasts of burden at the service of the privileged few, without much to gain from life other than a lighter load, better feed and a cosier berth.

Ultimately, only struggle determines outcome, and progress towards a more meaningful community must begin with the will to resist every form of injustice.

In general terms, this means challenging all exploitation and defying the legitimacy of all coercive authority. If anarchists have one article of unshakeable faith then it is that, once the habit of deferring to politicians or ideologues is lost, and that of resistance to domination and exploitation acquired, then ordinary people have a capacity to organise every aspect of their lives in their own interests, anywhere and at any time, both freely and fairly.

Anarchism encompasses such a broad view of the world that it cannot easily be distilled into a formal definition. Michael Bakunin, the man whose writings and example over a century ago did most to transform anarchism from an abstract critique of political power into a theory of practical social action, defined its fundamental tenet thus: In a word, we reject all privileged, licensed, official, and legal legislation and authority, even though it arise from universal suffrage, convinced that it could only turn to the benefit of a dominant and exploiting minority, and against the interests of the vast enslaved majority.

Anarchists do not stand aside from popular struggle, nor do they attempt to dominate it. They seek to contribute to it practically whatever they can, and also to assist within it the highest possible levels both of individual self-development and of group solidarity. It is possible to recognise anarchist ideas concerning voluntary relationships, egalitarian participation in decision-making processes, mutual aid and a related critique of all forms of domination in philosophical, social and revolutionary movements in all times and places.

Elsewhere, the less formal practices and struggles of the more indomitable among the propertyless and disadvantaged victims of the authority system have found articulation in the writings of those who on brief acquaintance would appear to be mere millenarian dreamers. Far from being abstract speculations conjured out of thin air, such works have, like all social theories, been derived from sensitive observation. They reflect the fundamental and uncontainable conviction nourished by a conscious minority throughout history that social power held over people is a usurpation of natural rights: power originates in the people, and they alone have, together, the right to wield it.

Do you think we in Britain are still threatened by fascism?

Fascism of one sort or another — as with any other reactionary populist ideology and fundamentalist belief system — is always a potential threat to society, especially when people’s fears and emotions can be manipulated and used in the furtherance of some elitist political or religious agenda. Who’d have thought twenty years ago that militant jihadist Islam or fundamentalist Protestantism/Catholicism would still be a serious and ongoing problem in the 21st century!

Should we try and build a movement and organise? If so, how might we do it and what form could it take?

Movements that are thrown up as a response to a particular threat or situation, yes, but you can’t just ‘set up’ a body with revolutionary aspirations in the hope of it developing it into a revolutionary movement’ without it — inevitably—degenerating into a self-perpetuating, self-serving vanguardist monster, e.g., the Communist Party, SWP, WRP, etc. A very useful text to read in that respect is Robert Michels’ ‘Political Parties’, especially the chapters outlining what he called ‘the Iron Law of Oligarchy’. The only way to build, organise, educate and proselytise anarchist libertarian ideas and solutions is through bodies with shared economic/class interests such as the trade unions, trades councils or other community-based groups…

This interview was undertaken by Owen Adams and is a Clarion web-edition special.

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LEFT INSIDE: Just who ARE these Squeezed Middle ‘Strivers’?

In C.Spiby on March 14, 2013 at 1:22 pm

Hard-working voters, once referred to as the ‘squeezed middle’ are now ‘strivers’. It is these people who will be the battleground for the next General Election.

Labour sees these as ordinary working people. Indeed, Yvette Cooper outed them as at least 2.5million working women (affected by the latest Child Benefit cuts), while millionaires – mostly men – have had their tax bill cut. The true face of the Tories is revealed once again.

No one believes is something for nothing. But the latest round of benefit cuts doesn’t even make mathematical sense. For example, you could have two members of a household earning up to £49k each – totalling a household income of £98k – receiving no cuts at all, but the mother who stays at home to raise her children, while the father ‘strives’ at his £51k salary job will be hit by these new cuts.

What’s particularly galling, however, is the fact that low-paid mothers – as Ms Cooper points out – on just £12k a year will be some £1,700 worse off in the child’s first year.

Labour’s shadow cabinet are united in their distaste for misplaced cuts. Ed Balls said after the last budget ‘This Tory-led Government is standing up for the wrong people. While millionaires get a £3 billion tax cut, it is people who are already struggling to make ends meet – millions of middle and lower income families and pensioners – who are paying the price for this failure.’

That is the sound of OUR Labour.

And, clearly, this is not being ‘in it together’ as Messrs’ Cameron and Osborne would have us believe.

Tax cuts, especially for the rich and big business, are being funded by three-year real-term cuts in benefits for the poor, unemployed and single parents while energy, transport and banking sharks squeeze maximum profits out of millions of people whose wages, pensions and benefits are shrinking.

Osborne’s plan isn’t working: take energy supply. Ripping off ordinary working people merely creates greater profits for shareholders, not more demand, investment or jobs in the economy.

This is where Ed Miliband’s ‘One Nation’ Labour fits in. He sees a nation at risk of becoming two; a place where there’s a million young people out of work – the gap between the richest and everyone else getting wider and worse. That’s what he wants Labour to change.

But what does ‘One Nation’ Labour look like? Well there’s still another 18 months until the next election, so I think we should be forgiven for not having out complete manifesto drawn out at this early stage. After all, a week in politics is a long time.

Nevertheless Labour supporters can debate their vision for the future at www.yourbritain.org.uk – it’s the new Party policy hub. If you don’t get your views on it, then they won’t be heard, and you can’t help develop the 2015 manifesto. So spread the word and spread it loud.

What’s more, locally, it is time to get active. There is the County Council elections on 2nd May this year. We need to start the fight-back now, and remove any chance of UKIP’s minority views getting around the table of local and county politics as they sneak up on the reach of the Lib Dems, reeling from Clegg’s betrayal of Lib Dem principles.

Let’s remember this post-‘New Labour’ Labour wants a bank bonus tax to help pay for a youth jobs programme. It seeks a tax break for small firms taking on extra workers, plus a plan to build affordable homes and get people back to work. And, as I have written many times before, this Labour has also promised to repeal the awful Health & Social Care Bill which is destroying our NHS.
 

CARL SPIBY

Can We Reclaim Democracy?

In Guest Feature, O. Adams on March 13, 2013 at 1:34 pm

DEAR Socialism, I don’t want you to be a dirty word for so many, too many, any more. You are needed and we all need to embrace you.

I had been wary about putting my cards on the table for all to see: but Government and Parliament have provoked me into doing so. I feel it’s time to stand up and be counted.

“This government – a government with a flimsy, pathetic excuse of a mandate – is intolerable, and it must be stopped in its tracks. No more silent simmering with rage.”

Owen Jones says it better than I could, in his editorial for The Independent, January 9, 2013.

“Take to the streets. Strike, and support those who do. Learn from this country’s proud history of peaceful civil disobedience…” “Sounds too radical, too extreme, or too much like hard work?” he continues.

“In the years to come, you will be asked what you did to stop this horror show. And if you need another incentive, picture again those baying Tories, jeering as they mugged the poor.”

As the New Labour project was on its last legs, having stuffed banks’ black holes with £1.3 trillion public cash, the stand-up comic/activist Mark Thomas told the 2009 Put People First rally in London:

“We have to build a movement that will fight… to reclaim democracy, to reclaim our lives from capitalism… WE are the alternative… We must start today.”

Occupy made waves internationally last winter, putting into practice a form of direct democracy through general assemblies, consensus when making decisions, and calling for the 99% to overpower the 1%. Occupy is loath to label itself as an –ist movement, and I’ve heard campaigners reject the old left/right-wing definitions.

But I’m holding five cards in a leftwing, anti-authoritarian, egalitarian pack, which I feel correspond with Occupy, plus the Tony Benn-fronted, TUC-aligned Coalition of Resistance, and a massive groundswell of autonomous individuals not part of any organisation but fired up by the spread of information outside the traditional mainstream media, their personal deprivation, disenfranchisement and victimization by a clutch of nasty, cruel, inhumane millionaire powerbrokers. All of us want an end to exploitation and oppression, all want to strike back against the bullies, and all want to be part of a united movement, I would hope, to achieve those goals.

I’d hope that even if many folks and their organizations only share one or two of these five cards I hold in my heart, it won’t deter us towards solidarity, co-operation, and organizing in a broad resistance movement.

First on the table is Socialism, my Ace of Hearts (no kings and queens in this pack!). I’d think I’d share that card with anyone who supports The Clarion.

The second is Democracy – I believe the Chartists and Suffragettes got so far, but a vote proscribed and regulated by the bourgeoisie every four years for a nominal change of guard with no option to end capitalism, is not real democracy.

I lay my third, Pacifism, face-up, as I believe freedom for all, something I strive for, cannot include the freedom to punch another person in the face, or blow them up. It might seem the Cold-War spectre of the mushroom cloud, of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) went out with Perestroika and Reagan. But we’re surrounded by nuclear facilities, the arms trade is flourishing, and so is war. There are innumerable ways of sorting disputes that do not involve violence: many anthropologists, many civil rights and civil disobedience advocates, including Gandhi, can vouch for that.

Cue now a thundering theme tune (by Motorhead, perhaps?). My fourth card is… the Ace of Spades… Anarchism.

The revealing of this card might possibly provoke a confused or hostile response based on misconception. To borrow the 1920s words of Bartolomeo Vanzetti, anarchists are seen as “the black cats, the terrors of many, of all the bigots, exploiters, charlatans, fakers and oppressors. Consequently we are also the more slandered, misrepresented, misunderstood and persecuted of all.”

You’d be hard pushed to find a universal definition of what anarchism is, but in my view, and that of so many of its thinkers past and present, from Peter Kropotkin to Noam Chomsky, anarchism is a type of socialism, just as Marxism, syndicalism or Fabianism are. The 19th-century American Jo Labadie explains it well: “It is said that Anarchism is not socialism. This is a mistake. Anarchism is voluntary Socialism. There are two kinds of Socialism, archistic and anarchistic, authoritarian and libertarian, state and free. Indeed, every proposition for social betterment is either to increase or decrease the powers of external wills and forces over the individual. As they increase they are archistic; as they decrease they are anarchistic.”

The living Scottish anarchist Stuart Christie provides a wonderful definition:

“Anarchism is a movement for human freedom. It is concrete, democratic and egalitarian … Anarchism began – and remains – a direct challenge by the underprivileged to their oppression and exploitation.”

Although Marxists and anarchists often don’t see eye-to-eye (with the exception of the Zapatistas of Chiapas, Mexico, whose peaceful and highly successful peasants’ movement, is anarchist-based but whose spokesman Subcomandante Marcos, leans towards Marxism), their histories have been intertwined from the start.

The Paris Commune of 1871 and its failure resulted in Marx’s “dictatorship of the proletariat” theory, and then, the following year, Marx and his followers getting anarchists expelled from the (socialist) First International.

But Anarchists took part alongside the Bolsheviks in the Russian Revolution. But, as Marx had, Trotsky and Stalin each went out of their way to violently crush anarchists in power struggles – Stalin’s influence split the republican forces in the Spanish Civil War, giving Franco victory; Trotsky responded to calls for democratic rights and freedom of expression for sailors and peasants in the Kronstadt Rebellion of 1921 with a 60,000-strong Red Army; while the Makhnovist anarchists’ Free Territory in Ukraine (1918-21) alliance with the Bolsheviks to defeat the Tsarist White Army, was undermined by Trotsky who seized the area for the USSR.

Many people, including those who label themselves anarchists, will have a different idea of what anarchism is (as I emphatically believe that a capitalist cannot also be an anarchist, despite the erroneous claim of so-called right-wing ‘libertarians’ and laissez-faire free-market extremists, few Marxists would embrace Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge or China’s current one-party neoliberal model).

So many people refuse to consider the concept of anarchy in much other than pre-Enlightenment, Hobbesian, terms. In 1651, Hobbes defined anarchy as a state of nature, a naturally depraved selfish free-for-all; an authoritarian state, monarchy or dictatorship, he argued, was essential to protect people from themselves. And this belief still upholds even the most vicious authority.

Anarchism does not mean chaos and disorder, as it is commonly claimed, but the opposite. Almost every school of anarchism speaks of order from the bottom up. Perhaps a good example of an anarchist achievement is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948; or it could be something as prosaic as the internet or world postal system arrangements, not coerced and controlled by an authority but the result of friendly agreements and mutual aid (incidentally the author of the key text Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution was the anarchist Kropotkin).

The fifth and final card I am laying down I’m not sure how to define precisely: it could be compromise, consensus, responsibility to others, community tolerance – it could also be viewed as realism, hypocrisy or prostitution… it’s about give and take, it means I would vote Labour if there was an election tomorrow although I consider just about all politicians in the rebranded One Nation party charlatans and turncoats. It means that although I detest supermarkets, I will do my shopping there as I can’t afford to buy more ethically.

It also means that while arguing about anarchism – and confirming it as a form of socialism – until the cows come home, I will join together in solidarity, and seek common cause, with others fighting the good fight against the Tories and capitalism! Being involved with the HOOF campaign has shown me that people of all political persuasions, religious and non-religious, of all classes, backgrounds and ages, can come together to defeat the authorities, with their beliefs and individual freedoms staying intact and respected. THEY want the left to be split, THEY want us divided. Let’s show them otherwise… Unity is strength, and so are diversity and openness. And I’d like to see both Socialism and Anarchist given the prominence, respect and attention they deserve, for people to say it loud, that they’re red (and black!) and they’re proud.

OWEN ADAMS (Forest of Dean Anarchists)

Forest of Dean Anarchists is a new affinity group formed for anyone with an interest in anarchism: for discussion, agitation and grassroots organisation. It meets informally every other Tuesday evening (from January 15) at the Severn View Inn at the top of Primrose Hill, Lydney. See http://fodanarchists.wordpress.com/news/ and www.facebook.com/fodanarchists

Further reading: Iain McKay (ed): An Anarchist FAQ (2007) is a detailed reference book. Available online at http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Anarchist_FAQ or in book form from AK Press ISBN 978-190259390-6 Stuart Christie: My Granny Made Me An Anarchist is an engaging and entertaining autobiography. See also www.christiebooks.com

Victor Hugo, “Les Miserables” – and the Guernsey Connection

In John Wilmot on March 13, 2013 at 1:16 pm

The film (not to mention the stage production), of Les Miserables, has become one of the most unlikely musical successes of recent times.

Not because it isn’t spectacular. It is. But it’s not exactly the kind of “feel good” musical beloved by Hollywood (or even UK studios) in the past. It’s a story of poverty and conflict set against the turmoil of mid-19th Century France.

It’s taken from the novel by Victor Hugo, one of France’s most renowned writers – a man for whom politics and literature were often intertwined.

Victor Hugo was born in 1803, at a time when France was already in turmoil. The French revolution had swept away the monarchy, the “reign of terror” had left its mark, and Napoleon Bonepart was about to dominate the European stage. In his earlier years, In his youth, Victor Hugo was a committed royalist, but the turbulent times through which he lived shifted his views, until he became a passionate republican.

His first successful novel was The Hunchback of Notre Dame (also made into a film in later years), published in 1831. But Les Miserables didn’t appear until 1862.

Because of his political views – which he pursued perhaps rather too actively for the regime in power – he was forced into exile, eventually settling on the island of Guernsey where he stayed for fifteen years. And it was here that he wrote Les Miserables.

On his return to his homeland, he was feted by much of the literary establishment – though not all critics liked his new novel. He was elected to the French National Assembly, where he served as something of an “angry old man”, and finally died in 1885 at the age of 83.

During his life time, Hugo lived through some of the most turbulent times in France’s history. He grew up during Napoleon’s short-lived empire, when conflict swept across Europe. He witnessed the return of the monarchy and its overthrow, uprisings (including the short-lived Paris Commune) and the horrors of the French-Prussian war. He remained an intellectual rebel, siding with the poor and downtrodden, even though he died as a “grand old man” of French literature.

Les Miserables

culminates in one of these periods of conflict – the rebellion of June 1832. I wouldn’t want to give away too much of the plot – suffice to say that the central character is Jean Valjean, an ex-convict who rises to become a successful businessman and mayor of his local town – but following the uprising, he eventually finds redemption.

In the words of Hugo, it charts a “progress from evil to good… from corruption to life.” During this journey Jean Valjean may become a force for good, but he cannot escape from his dark past.

It’s a complex plot, drawing in many strands and sub-plots. And, as novels go it is probably one of the lengthiest ever published (the original English language edition ran to well over a 1,000 pages). But it seems to have stood the test of time.

JOHN WILMOT

EDITORIAL: Countdown to 2015

In Editorial on March 13, 2013 at 1:09 pm

In January this year, Cameron and Clegg faced the cameras to give us their take on the Government’s record so far. They’ve now reached mid-term – and as they looked back on the shambles created by the ConDem coalition since 2010, Cameron managed somehow to look both smug and complacent as he proclaimed that the administration was on target.

It’s difficult to grasp what target he was talking about. When it comes to listing the regime’s “achievements”, we hardly know where to start. Perhaps we can begin with one over-riding issue – the economy. The Government has so far failed to lift the country out of the doldrums – and if economic reports are anything to go by, we could be in for a “triple-dip” recession. Of course for many who’ve been thrown out of work, or have failed to get a job at all, the recession’s never gone away.

A REMINDER:

Let’s remind ourselves of what’s happened since the unholy alliance of Tory and Liberal Democrats took over the reins of government in May 2010. “We’re all in this together,” proclaimed the new Prime Minister. But it soon became clear that some were in it more than others – and for those on high incomes, their life-style wasn’t affected at all. The bonus culture continued unabated.

Before the end of that year, the cuts had begun, hitting services, jobs and wages both nationally and locally. It was of course lower income families who were hit the hardest, and have continued to be hit. And, by the end of the year, plans to increase student tuition fees nearly three-fold were announced. Clegg and his band of Lib Dem followers tamely acquiesced, despite their pre-election pledge to abolish student fees altogether. Support for the Lib Dems slumped from 23 to 11 per cent in opinion polls (it now stands at 8 per cent).

In his first budget, the Chancellor George Osborne announced that he would be cutting benefits by £2 billion – rising to £8 billion by 2013. And before the end of the year, the Government unveiled its plans to sell off the NHS piecemeal to “any willing provider”. After a long-fought and bitter battle, the Bill passed through Parliament, with Clegg’s tame Liberal Democrats trooping into the lobbies in support of the bill, in March 2011.

Whilst the structure for change is now being put into place, we have yet to feel the full affect of the Tory Health Act. We may have to wait until next year before the first major wave of privatisation hits the fan. The end of the Health Service as we’ve known it may be slow and agonising. But, of course, campaigners continue to fight a rearguard action, working to ensure that health care in Gloucestershire remains in NHS hands – at least for now.

THE PUBLIC SECTOR:

One of the Government’s stated aims is the “reform of the public sector”. The word “reform” here is used to describe a process of making cuts, slashing jobs – and hiving off areas of the public sector to private companies. The slow erosion of public provision of services since the days of Thatcher is now becoming an avalanche.

In one particular sector, that of education, the old pattern of local authority control and accountability will soon become nothing but a memory, if Michael Gove has his way. “Academies” will rule the roost, with private companies or “faith” institutions sponsoring them.

All these points have, of course, been covered in past issues of the Clarion – as has the increasing level of poverty in Britain. Food banks and soup kitchens are on the increase, as more and more families struggle to feed themselves. More of them are losing their homes, and are forced to seek “temporary accomodation”. On the other side of the coin, pawn shops and money lending are on the increase. Over Christmas, for example, it was estimated that 1.4 million took out loans to cover the festive season.

This, then, in summary, is Cameron’s Britain. In reality he has little to look smug about. And yet he seems to believe that he can win a second term of office, and remain at Number Ten until 2020.

If current opinion polls are anything to go by, he has no chance at all – though much can happen between now and 2015.

Even if the Tories manage to stage some kind of recovery by the next election, they would have to gain an overall majority. They are unlikely to

have the support of the Liberal Democrats who are on track to being slaughtered at the polls. And if current trends are anything to go by, Cameron’s party could face a strong challenge from the right, in the form of a resurgent Ukip. Even if (hopefully) Ukip fail to win any seats, they could garner enough support to split the right wing vote.

LABOUR’S CHALLENGE:

Meanwhile, Labour needs not only to get its act together, but also to stand firm on its principles. It needs to look to its core values, and start campaigning for all those who’ve lost out under this vicious Tory attack on their livelihoods, their homes and their families.

For those who remain cynical and who doubt that the Labour Party is capable of such change, there is a need to face up to the fact that it is the only alternative in town. And if the message gets through not only to rank and file members but also the leadership, then we could have a chance of a radical alternative to the Cameron/Osborne “slash and burn” approach.

It’s worth noting here that 2015 will mark the seventieth anniversary of the election of the 1945 Labour Government. Then, too we were saddled with massive debts, and the country was in a mess. But, concentrating on priorities, the Government pushed through the biggest programme of welfare reform that we’ve ever had. It’s this same programme that the ConDem government is now intent on dismantling.

CAMPAIGNING:

True, we need to carry on campaigning – for the National Health Service, against Government-inflicted poverty and deprivation, and against the financial lobby that backs Cameron and Co to the hilt. Indeed, as we move into the second half of this administration, such campaigns need to be intensified.

Meanwhile the Government is now mounting another attack on those who try to survive on benefits. It’s been backed by Tory attacks on “scroungers” and “skivers”, and the claim that however poor people are they should make sacrifices for the common good – whatever that may be.

The background to this new legislation is covered elsewhere in this issue. It has had its backers, many of them amongst those who should know better. Misinformation from Government Ministers backed by a rabid Tory press has had an impact.

It’s an important issue, not only for those who suffer most under the present Government, but also because it’s a benchmark of the kind of society we want to be part of. Do we really want to live in a society marked by deep social divisions, a callous disregard of those who struggle from week to week to make ends meet – whilst the rich get richer still?

Or do we want an egalitarian society, typified by concern for those around us?

The Clarion knows which alternative it prefers!

SOLIDARITY BETWEEN GENERATIONS

In C. Mickleson on March 13, 2013 at 1:04 pm

Isn’t it time to bridge the age gulf, asks CLAUDE MICKLESON?

“The old are a grumbling load of money-grabbers, always wanting something for nothing…” “The young aren’t prepared to do a fair day’s work, they spend their lives lazing around causing trouble, and are only interested in money for nothing, sex, booze, celebrity and watching sport.” As for the middle-aged “baby boomers”, they were “brought up with unrealistic expectations, and demand more than the country can afford.”

This is what we’re expected to believe, if we listen to some people or read certain publications. No doubt there may be a few people who fit these stereotypes, but most of us aren’t like that at all. We just want a reasonable life of peace and security. The fact that some people may fall for this kind of typecasting is a matter of satisfaction to the rich, and their ilk, because it suits their interests to drive a wedge between the old and young and thereby divide us.

GROWING UP:

I’m now an old codger who should have been put down long ago. But it seems to me that the young are having a bad time of it. I’m now 89 and left school 75 years ago at the age of 14. I had to settle for any available job until I could get an apprenticeship, and I finished up delivering groceries on a carrier bike. At least I had a job, and earned the princely sum of ten shillings (50p) a week.

Expectations have changed beyond imagination since then. But even so, it wasn’t enough to keep a growing lad, and my parents had to keep me. We lived hand to mouth – my Dad was insecure in his job, and there were brothers and sisters. I scraped along until the war came, which scotched my chances of the promised apprenticeship. Eventually I joined the RAF, where I was clothed and fed.

DIFFERENT TIMES:

A youngster today has different needs and very different expectations. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s called progress. But these days, someone leaving school at 16 or older, probably better educated than I was, is extremely lucky to get a job. This creates problems – unless he/she is fortunate to have well-heeled parents who could support them, help them to study and provide them with a deposit on a house. But these cases are comparatively rare.

It’s a crime that young people are unable to get employment

– something that all of us need to fulfil our lives and provide for our needs. Beside it being necessary for our own wellbeing it’s better for society. Despite the fact that those who control the job market like the idea of a large pool of unemployed in order to discipline the workers (“there’s plenty waiting to take your job if you step out of line”), it should be a Socialist principle that we are all fully trained and gainfully employed for the prosperity of us all. Leaving people on the scrapheap for any length leads to them losing the will to work which isn’t good for them or the rest of the country.

OLD CODGERS:

Now let’s turn to the “old codgers”, those who served in the armed forces, worked in factories, farms, mines or shops. Very few except the very

escaped “their duty”. Life was hard then and for some years after. The “in-betweeners” and “baby boomers” had it slightly better, and their expectations increased. Their parents were determined that their children would have a better life than they had experienced. In my opinion, times did get better – until the disastrous election of 1979 when we were burdened with the “Iron Lady”.

We had had to fight hard for every improvement – which then had to be defended. Thatcher cowed the leadership of the labour movement, and since then life has become more and more difficult.

“New Labour” did nothing for us – and now we are facing an extension of the working age, despite a desperate shortage of jobs and a million young people facing a lousy start in life. In years to come, people will be expected to work until… infinity (?), becoming older and more infirm, whilst the young are out of work with nothing to do, and no money with which to do it.

Solidarity demands that we all make sure that everyone who is fit and able to work has a decent, fairly-paid job, is fairly treated, and those too old or disabled are provided for and cared for with dignity. Here the Government is right – we, the working and middle classes are all in this together. But not so the rich it would seem.

In conclusion, we all need to work together to ensure that everyone is able to live a healthy, fulfilling life.

Obituary: WENDY CORUM – a free spirit

In Obiturary on March 13, 2013 at 12:59 pm

Alison Rennie remembers an old friend

I only knew Wendy for the last third of her eventful life, but she often told me of earlier times. Her family were strong supporters of the co-operative movement and were Communists. Wendy joined the Communist Party early in her life, but when the party split she changed her allegiance to the Ecology Party, now the Green Party. She studied at Art College in Cambridge during the war and worked in a munitions factory. After the war she took a teachers’ training course and taught in London for many years. Her colleagues report that she was a good and enthusiastic teacher, especially in arithmetic – a subject that she had always found difficult, so she was able to understand her pupils’ problems!

She also studied music at evening class and joined the Workers’ Music Association. She attended their summer schools at Wortley Hall in Yorkshire every year. When she retired she decided to devote her time to composing music, but she had many other interests.

She joined CND and Friends of the Earth whilst in London and when she moved to the Forest of Dean she joined the local groups and took an active part in marches and demonstrations, painted posters, wrote letters to the papers and collected signatures for petitions. I first met her when she was collecting signatures for a CND petition to stop cruise missiles. While we were talking, I mentioned that I had just started learning Esperanto. Wendy was immediately interested. During the First World War her father had been in prison for being a conscientious objector, and two of his fellow prisoners were Fenner Brockway and Bertrand Russell. Fenner Brockway was an enthusiastic Esperantist, and told Alfred Corum about the principals and purpose of the language. So Wendy was quite keen to learn it – and we agreed that she would learn Esperanto and I would join CND.

As soon as she had learned enough, Wendy undertook a tour of Europe, staying with Esperantists who welcomed her into their homes. Several of them later came to stay with her in Ruspidge. She also put up some of my Esperanto pen-friends when I was living in a mobile home with no room for visitors.

We went to many esperanto functions, and Wendy was also able to join the Esperanto Choir. In the Forest she joined LETS (Local Exchange Trading Scheme), earning her currency by giving piano and singing lessons, and for about a year she was on the Ruspidge and Soudley Parish Council. She also supported many charities such as the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, Compassion in World Farming, the RSPB and the Woodland Trust. And for the sake of the birds in her garden, she gave up keeping cats. She did her own washing and cooking to the very end, and went foraging in the woods for edible fungi, showing me where to find St. George’s mushrooms in the Spring.

She joined “Forest of Dean Against the Cuts” at its second meeting, but failing health soon prevented her from attending meetings. As she approached her 89th birthday she became ill, but the doctor would not send her to hospital because he suspected she had a virus. Hospitals do not like to admit people with viruses. But the day after her birthday she was rushed to Cheltenham General Hospital’s emergency surgery unit with a blockage in her intestine. She was by now too frail for them to operate, and she died in hospital with her family around her to the end.

A well-filled and useful life has drawn to a close. I feel sure that her last wishes would be that we play her music and look after the planet and the people and creatures who live on it – as she always tried to do.

ANALYSIS: “ALL IN THIS TOGETHER”?

In R.Richardson on March 13, 2013 at 12:33 pm

Do you think that the present Government’s policies make for greater inequality within our society? Most would surely answer with a resounding “yes”. But many might think that while the poorest are severely disadvantaged, the rich are sitting pretty.

But it’s not as simple as that, says Kate Pickett, professor of Epidemiology at the University of York. According to research which she undertook with Richard Wilkinson, inequality has a negative impact on a society as a whole. For example, imprisonment rates, homicide rates and mental illness are higher , and life expectancy and welfare provision are lower.

THE STATISTICS:

Here in the UK, the richest 20 per cent are seven times richer than the poorest 20 per cent, while in Sweden they are only four times richer. And, more worrying, in the Unicef index of child wellbeing measured against income equality, the UK ranked bottom amongst the wealthy countries.

Recent legislation regarding the one per cent cap on benefits has hit the headlines. This will affect the poorest families most and will include half of Britain’s working households. These cuts are particularly hard to stomach when one bears in mind the cut in top rate income tax from 50 to 45 per cent last year. There’s little chance that Cameron might emulate his French counterpart Francois Hollande in raising top-rate taxes to 70 per cent – thus going some way towards reducing inequality.

DISPERSING THE POOR:

A few weeks ago, Polly Toynbee wrote an article in the Guardian on how new legislation will affect homeless families. The cap on the rent allowance in a particular area means that local authorities have to look further afield for cheaper accommodation. Inner city areas look to the outer boroughs which in turn are squeezed. Families can end up being housed many miles away from their home borough. Children are taken away from schools and parents from their support network, where indeed their families may have lived for generations.

As Polly Toynbee points out, the richest areas are purged of all their poorer residents and so no longer bear the cost of providing for them. Thus the inequalities in our society are magnified.

THE MYTHS:

The present Government (aided by certain elements in the media) has attempted to win general support for its divisive policies by encouraging a few myths. The case of families housed in £100,000 a year mansions was one. It emerged that there were just five of these temporary oddities. Another myth set the “shirkers” against the “strivers” – with a clear implication that the unemployed didn’t want to work.

In fact government policies have hugely increased the number of long-term unemployed. And the benefits cap will hit half of Britain’s working families as well as those without jobs.

In addition, under-25s will no longer be eligible for housing benefit, thus forcing them to stay at home unable to seek jobs or apprenticeships elsewhere.

As Polly Toynbee says, “those born workless in Knowsley or Hull can never leave.” Are these young people to be labelled “shirkers”?

FACING THE FACTS:

In a recent “Face the Facts” programme on Radio 4, John Waite outlined the huge problems that boroughs in London and the Home Counties face. Although guidance recommends families should stay in emergency B&Bs for only six weeks, some are there for several months because of the difficulty in finding suitable accommodation even when councils look further afield.

Because of the 1980s sell-off of council houses the problem is of course exacerbated. And many families who formerly owned their own homes, unable to keep up mortgage repayments have been forced into rented accommodation. It really is a landlords’ market.

“FAIRNESS”??

John Waite asked for a comment from the Housing Minister, and was told: “Our reforms return fairness to a system that was allowed to spiral out of control.”

John Waite asked for a comment from the Housing Minister, and was told: “Our reforms return fairness to a system that was allowed to spiral out of control.”

As the cap on benefits – including tax credits and child benefit as well as housing benefit – begins to bite, the gap between the haves and the have-nots in our society grows ever wider.

By RUTH RICHARDSON

Modern Times: the Dinosaur column

In Dinosaur on March 13, 2013 at 12:27 pm

dinosaurLiving in a different world:

If anyone wants to see how the “other half” lives (or aspires to live, anyway), have a leaf through the “Weekend” supplement that comes with the Citizen each Saturday.

I was having an idle look through a recent issue, as you do, and was suddenly struck by a surreal sense of unreality. After glancing at an article entitled “How to be an English gentleman”, I got on to a piece on winning a “top-to-toe pamper” at a beauty spa in Cheltenham . Moving on, there was an item on improving your skin tone, where to go for a “relaxing detox”, more on other spas that you could visit for a bit more pampering, and where to go for a meal, for that cosy evening out. But don’t forget your credit card!

There’s even a piece on “granny chic” if you feel the urge to “give your home a creative makeover”, and one on where to get hand-crafted place mats.

Who, I wonder, lives in this kind of world? Or is it just wishful thinking? I know that many colour supplements are tinged with unreality – the kind of lifestyle they promote is geared towards attracting the advertisers. But even by such standards as this, the Citizen’s weekend supplement was a bit over the top.

Christmas on tick:

Meanwhile for many families it’s been pay-back time, after borrowing the money to try to make Christmas just a bit special. It’s been estimated that something like one and a half million took out loans from the money sharks in the weeks leading up to the big day. There may be some kids out there who believe that it’s Father Christmas who brings the presents – but it’s Dad and Mum who have to pay for them.

Many poorer families, of course, went to local moneylenders, or applied for “short term” loans from such outfits as the insidious “Wonga”. And now they have to pay it back – with interest. Those who could afford it, it seems, just splashed out with their credit cards or took out overdrafts at their bank..

Moving the poverty goal posts:

It’s been estimated that the Government’s changes in benefit payments could drive up to two million more people into poverty. But there are moves to get round this awkward (for the Government, anyway) statistic.

We could just redefine the definition of what constitutes poverty. It’s all relative, after all – isn’t it? Or why not abolish the notion altogether? That would really brush the problem under the carpet.

But it wouldn’t make it go away. However you describe it, we are becoming a more and more unequal society. More and more families are struggling to make ends meet – or at least having to do without the things in life that others take for granted.

Back in the hungry ‘thirties, when kids were forced to go to school barefoot whilst their parents had to endure the humiliating visits of the “means test man” intent on cutting dole payments to the bone, poverty was all too visible. In those days, local authorities often provided free breakfasts for children coming to school with nothing but a gnawing hunger inside them.

Now, along with food banks and “soup kitchens”, these signs of the ‘thirties are returning. Blackpool has become the first authority to provide free school breakfasts.

To quote: “Council leaders and teachers said that the move was essential to combat growing numbers of children arriving at school hungry and unable to concentrate because their parents could no longer afford to give them breakfast.”

There is now a similar scheme in London, covering some fifty schools.

Playing at trains?

FINALLY, I see that the Department of Transport has received a new bid to take over the franchise of the controversial West Coast railway line.

It comes from a toy train maker based in Folkestone, called “BigJigs”, who offer to run the trains rather more cheaply than others bidders might. But the Department of Transport it seems were not impressed. It questioned the “crashworthiness” of the trains on offer, not to mention the “allocation of space” on the average BigJig train set.

Dinosaur