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Archive for the ‘Guest Feature’ Category

David Aaronovitch Interview

In Guest Feature, T. Chinnick on August 8, 2016 at 11:58 am

by Tyler Chinnick

{on-line special – full un-edited article in one piece, rather than split across two issues as in the print edition}

David Aaronovitch is a columnist for the Times and Jewish Chronicle (formerly The Independent and The Guardian). He is a winner of the Orwell Prize, chairman of the free speech organisation ‘Index on Censorship’ and author of ‘Voodoo Histories’ (about conspiracy theories). His new book ‘Party Animals’ examining his communist upbringing was published earlier this year. I caught up with David as he was padding up what he assured me was one of the steepest hills in London.

I think of you in the same bracket as people like Christopher Hitchens and Claire Fox who started out on the revolutionary left (Aaronovitch was a member of the Communist Party until 1987) and have migrated over the years to a point now where you’re post-political almost. Do you still consider yourself on the left?

[Laughter] Post-political?! I most certainly am not. And Hitchens wouldn’t consider himself as post-political.

I don’t think of myself as post-political and nor do I think of myself as a kind of classic journeyer from the far left over to the right. Some of the things that were actually the most important things to me politically when I was younger are still the most important things to me politically so I’m loathe to accept that classification.

And if it’s true that the kind-of people who regard themselves as being the cup-bearers for the left would not regard me as being of their number but to a certain extent I don’t care what they think.

You mentioned in the talk at the Hay festival that Internationalism is still one of your guiding principles are there any other principles that guide your politics?

Internationalism, inter-dependency, co-responsibility, feminism.

Without wanting to engage in any cheap psychologism it’s not difficult to see why a movement like feminism might have appealed to the young Aaronovitch. His parent’s relationship was not a happy one due mainly to his father’s serial infidelity. Painful enough at the best of times but to a mother who prized loyalty above everything else, almost unbearable. She coped with it by lying to herself, even in her own diary.

What about enlightenment values?

Yeah, actually, enlightenment is more important to me now than it was then because I didn’t really understand it as a concept, so in that sense I suppose you can say that is a kind of shift. You know gradually I’ve become much more militant in favour of freedom of expression, freedom of speech as the things that underline our capacity to be the people, to be the societies that we want to be. To take an example, I’ve become far more aware of the importance of say, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 than I would have been as a young communist.

Some people feel that those kind of values are under threat now in a way that they haven’t been in a while – would you share that fear?

In places, yes. After the fall of the Berlin wall we had a kind of view about the progress toward the acceptance of by-and-large the value of Western liberal democracy and I think for ten, fifteen years you could see that. So by the time we got to 2010 the number of democracies in the world had increased exponentially, through Latin America and so on and that’s still by-and-large been the direction of travel but there’s the substantial kick-back: Putinisation in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey, various other countries. We waited for a long time for a significant reform movement in Iran that has never really been successful, that has always been suppressed.

I was thinking specifically about here at home. With elements of the left cosying up and forming alliances with people who they may never have done so in the past.

No that’s true, and that’s irritating. But that’s kind of, quite a parochial concern in a way. I mean I do see that among certain sections of the left. A kind of relativism, an unthinking, a certain, basically a ‘find the underdog’ and whoever the underdog is, adopt their views – makes no sense. It depends on who the underdog is and what their views are whether you want to do that. So you can find people who are very strong say on women’s rights in the rest of society but that believe, effectively in withholding their solidarity from, let’s say Muslim women who are claiming the same rights – well, that’s not very impressive.

How has university and particularly student politics and freedom of speech on campus changed since you were there in the 70’s?

Well there were always people who, if you like, were keen to constrain the dangers of other people’s speech. Mostly they tended to be on the left and mostly the target tended to be people on the far-right and in a sense given that we were still only 30 years on from the Second World War and so on and we had a real problem of significant and violent racism – you could understand that even if it was slightly misplaced. But there were always people who tried to extend it then. So for example when I was a student leader you had a problem of some Trotskyists saying ‘well we have no platform for racists, the UN has just declared Zionism is racist, therefore we can have no platform for Zionists. And the Union of Jewish Students supports Israel which is a Zionist thing to do therefore we better ban them from speaking’! Some actually made that argument. It was always easily defeated but since then you’ve got a completely different thing that’s come in which is kind-of a degree of sensitivity, often hyper-sensitivity on behalf of someone else saying ‘we can’t bear to have these things said in this area because the speech itself constitutes an attack’ – almost as if it were a physical attack. This is not just restriction on speech it almost becomes a form of thought control.

Actually I’m beginning to think that we might have nipped the worst part of it in the bud now in Britain, if not in America. I think the Student Unions and others got the message that this is not the way to go. So I’m half-hoping that the problem will become less not more.

You opposed the Vietnam War when you were a student but you supported the Iraq war. What’s the difference?

There’s no similarity between them at all. The problem was that Saddam Hussein – was to all intents and purposes – was a fascist, ran a fascist regime by incredible violence, absolutely staggering violence and to effectively, in the end defend him from attack had nothing to do with the Vietnam war. But people will pose it in the way that they think it’s the same thing. The Vietnam war was, in a way, the arse-end of de-colonialisation, the Americans got hooked into because of the problems of the Cold War and their idea that almost anything was better than allowing countries to become communist. Saddam was a completely different kettle of fish.

What do your think attracts people to conspiracy theories?

As I said in ‘Voodoo Histories’ they’re better stories, they’re less complicated in some ways, they can give complete answers rather than the incomplete, unsatisfactory answers of real life.

So it has the attractiveness of a thriller is part of it and then the other part of it is the explanation for one’s own defeat, so, the kind of conspiracy theories which the Republicans threw at Clinton after they [The Republicans] lost the White House. ‘How could it possibly be”, they said to themselves “ that these Democrats who we hate so much have won more votes than we have, well, it must be jiggery-pokery because anything else has an explanation that lies in our unattractiveness and of course we don’t think we are.

Do you think we’re more susceptible to conspiracy theories now than we were because with the internet they have a viral quality that they didn’t in the past?

I think conspiracy theories get formed quicker and go round the world quicker but I don’t necessarily think that we’re more susceptible to them. I mean the anti-semitic conspiracy theories were incredibly widespread in Europe in the period after the first world war, ridiculously so. And they were probably more widely believed than any similar such conspiracy theories now. And of course once people have got them into their head it was hard to debunk them because you didn’t have a mechanism for reaching all those people who believed these things

Why do you think Communism was so socially conservative in practice?

Right at the beginning of the British Communist Party, interestingly, there was a puritan strain in that part of it was composed of temperance campaigners believe it or not. Then of course you had this notion of sacrifice for the working class and giving up everything to politics and to organisation, it’s quite a puritanical stance … so you had this strange combination of bohemianism i.e. we’re changing the world, everything is turned upside down and puritanism, everything for the sake of the class and so on and they sat in a kind of odd way. Now, at first after the Russian Revolution you had this explosion of experimental theatre, experimental art as all the artists think ‘well now we’ve thrown off the old shackles’ etc but the whole business gets very, very serious, you know about fighting off invaders, fighting off the counter-revolutionaries etc then the puritans gradually take over and what they say is actually your art should be entirely subject and your life should be entirely subject to the needs of the political moment. Now that becomes a very, very conservative position because it says it’s much less interested in experimentation now it’s much, much more interested in directing everything.

And I suppose the Party in Britain would have just been taking their lead from Russia?

To a certain extent but even to a quite late degree in the British Communist party you had the Bohemians, people who didn’t fit into the normal weft of Western life. I’ll give you a good example. You know the spy Guy Burgess, being a sort-of active gay guy in an era when that was frowned upon. You can quite easily see that some of his decision to oppose his country had something to do with his homosexuality. I’m not saying by the way by any means that homosexuals are traitors but what I am saying is that sometimes if you find yourself going up against everyone else you look for other affiliations.

And I suppose that would also explain why there were a disproportionate number of Jewish people in the Russian revolution?

Well precisely so. It does, and so a lot of forward thinking people or very imaginative people joined the revolutionary movement. But when that movement becomes a consolidation of power and then faces an existential crisis you know you’ve got an actual country there that you’re running then in that case it appealed to an innate conservatism. And so for instance Russian textbooks on anatomy for school would miss out the reproductive organs altogether, just wouldn’t mention them. Like Ken and barbie dolls really. When you got to that bit they were all gone. Not very helpful.

Among many things ‘Party Animals’ is a potted history of the major developments in Soviet history and how the CPGB, it’s leadership and members reacted to them. The Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, the invasion of Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968) and perhaps most problematic of all to a communist the 20th party congress at which Khrushchev revealed the truth about the Stalinist show trials and purges.

Did you ever talk to your parents about the revelations made by Khrushchev?

Thing is I didn’t have to talk to them about it because those had happened when I was a toddler, even younger than that and so by the time I would have been asking them questions about it it was already in the historical background. By the time I was in the party myself I – this sounds awful – but I didn’t care about their attitudes toward stuff was. I was not sufficiently enamoured of them to want to discover it.

Why did you decide to join the party?

Because I believed that the party was a good organisation that did the right things for people around the world and I wanted to be part of that.

But there were – and there still are – lots of Socialist and Communist groupings why the Communist Party?

Oh, I didn’t know that. I mean I knew there was the Labour party but I didn’t know there were all the other ones. I didn’t really know of the others until I went to college.

Though he says he was dimly aware of other left-wing parties he mistakenly thought that is was all more-or-less the same thing. He was soon disabused of that notion by a Trotskyist heartbreaker who slapped him across the face on discovering that in addition to joining her Trotskyist group he had also joined a Stalinist organisation. “She hated me” he recalls, the dismay still alive in his voice, “for being the wrong breed of leftist!”

Why did you decide to leave the party and how was that greeted by your family and former comrades?

I was already by then working in the media for five years. So I’d stopped really being politically active in any huge activist sense because it was incompatible with reporting on things to make yourself too much a part of them. In my house which I was sharing with other people we would put up things to do with help for the miners during the miners strike. I can remember writing things that were very sympathetic to the striking miners, if not to their leadership, but in terms of the party itself I’d more or less gone already. I mean I couldn’t really see myself the point of the Communist party already by ’87. I thought I would be better expressed probably in the Labour party. Also after I’d left being President of the National Union of Students I was just really politicked-out. I’d been an activist ever since I was a toddler. I’d been on countless demonstrations, I’d sold the bloody Morning Star on the student union steps almost every week for four years or something like that, I’d done my bit, I’d spoken on demos, been on demos, been arrested at demos etc. I’d just had enough of it.

All through my student life I was too political and I’d never really had any fun. I’d had some political fun but not really any other kind of fun. As it happens I’m not really a night-clubber or anything like that so it mattered less than to some people.

So you weren’t into night-clubbing and you didn’t particularly like Elvis Presley when you were younger and you’re disparaging about the drug culture … How did you rebel then – did you rebel at all?

I rebelled against my parents by taking myself out of the house and not going to anything with them, not going on holiday with them and so on. I mean it didn’t seem necessary to rebel more than that.

You weren’t tempted to become a Tory?

[Laughter] No! God no! I was not. That was the bloody last thing … [More laughter]. It’s extraordinary enough that I’m a Times columnist that’s kind of testing the limits without being a Tory. But if it seriously got to the point where I thought that the only way to keep a Corbyn government out was to vote Tory then that would be intellectually the right thing to do but it would be an incredible wrench. I mean I’ve never voted Tory in my life!

I was brought up thinking by and large that Tories were essentially devilish creatures and of course I’ve met quite a lot of Tories since and have discovered that some of them are quite personable. But I’ve never been even remotely tempted to be one.

What would your Dad make of Corbyn?

I think my mother would have been emotionally attracted to Corbyn on a very simple basis which is that he is the closest thing standing to what we used to stand for. My Dad was an autodidact, he taught himself Marxism and then economics. And one of my Dad’s favourite words was rigour – the idea that you must subject everything to rigorous work and rigorous analysis, you had to know all the facts and then you had to analyse them and that was really, really important to him. Say for instance you wanted to talk about the working class you had to have a definition of what the working class was, who is in the working class, how do they come to be the working class and when you say ‘the working class movement’ who are you actually talking about – which forces, in what kind of alliance, how would you get them together and how would they work and so on. I am pretty sure that he would have looked at Corbyn and thought this is an absolute bloody shambles, this is just not serious. And Corbyn has asked himself none of those sorts of questions, has no kind of intellectual interest in them as far as anybody can see and therefore is fundamentally unserious and therefore can’t lead anybody. I’m pretty sure that that’s what my father would have thought although I must say it’s very convenient for me thinking that that’s what he would think.

Do Labour/the left have an anti-semitism (AS) problem and if so how much, if any, is the fault of Jeremy Corbyn? The accusation is that he’s brought people into the party who would have been outside it otherwise.

I’m with my father in this respect really, which is I’m always interested in the question of what we mean by the words that we use – what do we mean by AS? I don’t regard it as anti-semitic per se to say ‘I don’t think Jews should go and live in a place called Israel and therefore I’m not a Zionist.’ I’m slightly more worried about people who of all things want to be anti-Zionist because that means that they’re against one particular form of national self-expression but not against any of the others but I don’t think they do that because they have a prejudice against Jews particularly.

So the anti-semitic tropes we’re talking about are the ones that are a transference to the word Zionist or the idea of Israel that are the old prejudiced perceptions about Jews. That they are incredibly and disproportionately financially successful and crafty and that they influence people by nefarious means, not open means to get their way. These would have been tropes that were highly recognisable to far-right people. And actually some of them come from far-right people so you now get this bizarre business that’s this cross-tweeting between Corbynistas – and I don’t mean people who are close to Corbyn particularly though some of them might be – and some sections of the far right, they just simply can’t tell the difference. They both claim to be for Palestinian rights above everything and that’s partly why all this has a particular salience really. It comes from this super-notion of the jewish lobby, or the Israeli lobby, or the Zionist lobby and so on you are essentially picking up on an anti-semitic trope which has gone down the centuries. That Jews are particularly tribal and close and manipulative. And I think that has infected sections of the Labour party or activists within the Labour party and I think it is a problem that the Labour Party now has.

The other aspect of this of course is that some of these attitudes are absolutely routine among some sections of the Muslim community. They’re just simply what Imam’s teach about Jews arriving out of the Koran and with no contradictory experience i.e. with no experience of actual Jews themselves to compare this against it is what an awful lot of people in the Muslim community including Muslim members of Labour believe – it’s what they’ve imbibed actually, which is even worse. In other words that’s almost the default position before you get to anything else.

Do you think there is any hope for socialism?

Now you remember what I said about my Dad – what’s your definition of socialism?

Let’s say Clause 4 the “democratic ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”

Let’s dig down into that a little bit. If we replace private ownership and private profit with democratic control as an economic mechanism – so think about it, who is exercising the democratic control and where are they exercising it – what are we talking about there? Who’s doing what?

I’ve always been taken with Jean Jaures notion that for, say nationalised industries a third of the board would be elected by the government, a third by the workers in that industry and a third by the electorate.

The thing is people don’t want to spend their time electing and in a lot of meetings and they won’t run these companies particularly well and whenever this has been tried it’s not worked.

The question is what the optimum level of involvement in action is. When I was a student activist, Trot’s put an incredible amount of emphasis on the idea of direct democracy. They thought that if you were at a meeting the vote you took was ten times better than any vote you took if you weren’t at a meeting by virtue of having participated in the discussion and so on. I kind-of half thought that was true for a while but I just don’t any more. I don’t think you get good decisions that way and I don’t think it really works. In the sense that we’re talking about that kind of socialism, democratic control over the means of production etc. – I think it’s very good that you put it like that because you took the question seriously and attempted to create a definition which you’re probably aware is not what Corbynistas do. What they generally say is ‘oh well, we’re just going to do better things for everybody and life will be better for everybody’. And wave a vague stick at it. So you at least tie it to a proposition – even if it’s a proposition that we can then say once we’ve dealt with it won’t work.

By the time I was in the mid 80’s, late 80’s, I just didn’t believe anything like that would work. That’s not to say that capitalist system isn’t open to huge levels of reform, I mean after all the whole business of regulation, which has grown and grown and grown because we all know that you cannot simply leave it to the profit principle to decide how society is completely organised and who in the end absolutely gets what. It has to be mediated and how it’s mediated is always an open question but to set an arbitrary point about mediation and to say that this side of this point is socialism and this side isn’t when you haven’t fundamentally altered the system is I think a bit of a confidence trick.

Who do you think will win in November in the American election?

Hillary Clinton will win. And I’m saying that largely because I don’t really want to be on the planet if that’s not the case.

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The EU – in or out? NOT FOR CAMERON, BUT DESPITE HIM!

In Guest Feature on June 23, 2016 at 12:17 pm

by GLYN FORD

On June 23rd, Clarion readers will have the opportunity to have their say on Europe. Tory PM David Cameron went off both to Brussels and on a parallel peregrination around Europe to negotiate a series of “reforms” that would enable him to recommend that Britain votes to remain in the European Union (EU). Now he’s telling us all that if we don’t vote to “Remain” Britain will be bankrupt, friendless and impotent with the world facing a new world war. One wonders when someone will point out to him that he was solely responsible for getting the UK into this mess, when as part of a squalid deal with Tory fundamentalists he gambled the country’s future for the rabid right’s votes for the Tory leadership.

BAD NEWS, GOOD NEWS:

There is bad news and good news for those on the left. The bad news is that Cameron was asking for the wrong (and reactionary) reforms. But the good news is that most of what he got was window dressing, not worth the paper it wasn’t written on – although the few real things he did get are dangerous. The Tories got a totally meaningless opt-out on an “ever closer union” as an EU objective and a verbal promise that the other 27 member states would turn a blind eye to discrimination against their citizens as regards to in and out of work benefits when living in the UK. A provision that he knows all too well will be promptly and rightly ruled illegal and overturned as soon as the first case taken by an aggrieved EU citizen reaches the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. Nevertheless it’s a convenient fiction until well after the votes in the referendum are cast and counted.

WEASEL WORDS:

However, Cameron did get a promise on “better regulation” at EU level. One does wonder who was supposedly in favour of “worse regulation”? It rather depends on what you mean – for Cameron and the Tory Government “better regulation” are in reality weasel words for less regulation protecting workers and consumers from the gentle ministrations of capital determined to maximise profit and minimise costs. It’s less regulation controlling the bankers and Hedge Funds as they continue to grow like a cancer at the heart of the British economy, and in reward throw their millions in small change into Tory Party coffers. It’s less regulation of Britain’s tax havens as canny millionaire fathers squirrel away the money for Eton education at the expense of public services for the poor and needy. All hardly designed to drive voters out in their droves to support “Remain”, even if “Leave” would in contrast put Dracula in charge of the blood bank with all the EU restraint on their savaging of public services and the poor removed.

NOT FOR CAMERON:

But that’s the wrong answer to the wrong question. The Left and Labour’s argument for voting to “remain” is not because of Cameron but despite him. Our argument is not the “red Tory” one of the Scottish Referendum when Labour was suckered into endorsing the Tory case for Union. In an increasingly global economy the future lies together not separately. The EU is currently bigger and richer than the US. The EU can set global standards – whether social or political – on trade and on the environment, human rights and equality, in a way no medium sized nation state could ever contemplate. We want to stay in Europe to change it, but in entirely the opposite direction from where Cameron wants to take us.

NEEDS:

We need a European Economic Strategy that rejects the neo-liberal austerity programme, a commitment to fighting climate change and a rapid drive towards a “green economy”, a trade policy that puts people first, paralleled by a foreign policy underpinned by multilateralism, human rights and democracy accompanied by security and defence policy that has the EU prepared to tackle today’s – and tomorrow’s – threats rather than yesterday’s.

Today’s Europe wears its social democratic cloth all too lightly, all progressives would agree. Yet while it would be wonderful if we could build Socialism in one country, if it was ever possible it isn’t any more. What miracle of English exceptionalism, what fantasy, allows us to think we can go it alone when our Socialist sister parties across Europe whether in Italy or Germany or France, all believe their future is inside the Union? The Greek Left, despite all the harsh indignities visited upon it by the World and Europe’s Bankers know that their best future is in Europe – and the Euro – not outside.

The Marx and Spencer of the “Leave” campaign – Groucho and Frank that is Boris and Farage – offer nothing that we want. These “Dell Boys” of politics are selling xenophobic right-wing populism wrapped up in a flag of St. George and a nostalgia for a past that never was for Britain’s poor and needy. Another Europe is possible but the only way to get there is to vote to “remain” on June 23rd – despite Cameron not because of him – and go on from there.

by GLYN FORD

Glyn is the editor (with Julian Priestley) of a collection of essays, “Our Europe, Not Theirs”; a second edition of which has been published by Lawrence and Wishart.

90 YEARS OF THE WOODCRAFT FOLK

In Guest Feature on December 22, 2015 at 4:33 pm

by SARAH RICHARDSON

This year, the Woodcraft Folk are celebrating their 90th anniversary. Woodcraft was set up in 1925 by a 19-year-old called Leslie Paul, with a handful of boys in South London. It was a breakaway group from Kibbo Kift – which in turn had broken away from the Scouts after the First World War. These early leaders wanted to grow a youth movement which was not militaristic or monarchist. It would be co-educational and promote peace. It would also be run in an open and democratic way.

From the early days, the Woodcraft Folk has had strong links with the Co-operative movement. As early as summer 1925 there is a letter in the Woodcraft archive showing the Woolwich Co-op giving a grant of £5 in order that the first group could buy a tent.

Camping and the outdoor life was and still is an important part of the Woodcraft Folk This part of their philosophy is borrowed from the writer and naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton who was writing at the beginning of the 20th Century and set up a proto-scouting group in the USA called “Woodcraft Indians”. To show connection with the natural world, Woodcrafters then would have their own name and a “Folk” name. For example, the founder, Leslie Paul’s Folk name was “Little Otter”. From these humble beginnings, Woodcraft grew to a national organisation with links with similar Socialist and peace youth groups worldwide.

CELEBRATING NINETY YEARS:

There have been several strands going on this year to mark the 90th Anniversary. There has been a heritage officer appointed who is interviewing members of all ages to create an oral history of the organisation, together with the annual gathering in September at Wales by Scout Park in the Midlands where there were workshops and meetings.

In June this year, I enjoyed the London and South East Region pageant to mark the anniversary. There were several tents to mark the different decades that the Woodcraft Folk had grown through and crafts and activities in each of those tents. I was in the 1980s tent, and ran an activity with Richard, Shona and Rowan about Greenham Common. Families came and made peace symbols to tie to our fence as women had done at Greenham There were also co-operative games such as the “Tug of Peace” and a potato and spoon race to make it vegan friendly!

Jeremy Corbyn came to cut the anniversary cake with its Woodcraft symbol on. Jeremy told us that when his children were young they had been “Woodies” and it was good to remember that there were people in the world standing up for peace.

Woodcraft’s motto is “Span the world with friendship”, an aim which is as relevant today as it was following the Great War. Happy Woodcraft – and we look forward to celebrating the centenary!

PIECES: Education Matters & Campaigning Against Trident

In Guest Feature, R.Richardson on March 5, 2015 at 9:02 pm

2 PIECES (the first by Ruth Richardson, the second – with her first Clarion article – Rowan McKeever)

EDUCATION MATTERS

BALANCING THE BOOKS:

As we move into 2015, head teachers are worried about balancing their budgets. A dossier drawn up by schools in Wirral, Merseyside, indicates that 19 out of the district’s 22 secondary schools will be unable to balance budgets in 2016/17.  The problems stem partly from increases in national insurance and pension contributions.

DEMANDING A POUND OF FLESH?

Another significant expense in many cases is the repayment of deals done under PFI (Private Finance Initiatives) signed years ago. Schools, like hospitals, were regularly rebuilt or refurbished under such deals, often tying them into thirty years of repayments.

Frank Field, the MP for Birkenhead, declared that the impact of such PFI agreements was particularly alarming.  Schools were being ripped off through high-charging maintenance  agreements.

And Russell Hobby of the head teachers’ union, NAHT, said “we’re reaching the end of the line for efficiency savings…  the fact is we’re not reaching the end of the projected cuts. We face as many cuts in the future as we have in the past.”  Schools may have to cut staffing levels and raise class sizes. The curriculum may be reduced with fewer options offered.

PROTECTED??

A spokesman for the DfE responded  saying that budgets were protected and that local authorities received the same amount per pupil as in 2010. With rising costs this is obviously totally inadequate in 2015.

FREE SCHOOLS:

The Free School movement has been in the news again – and not in a good way. First, in December, Labour acquired information via a Freedom of Information request  that 80 per cent  of those opened in 2014 had failed to fill all their places. New Free Schools, of course, attract a huge government subsidy – meaning that there’s less money for local authority schools. In Brixton, £18 million  was spent on new premises for a Free School for 120 pupils – but only 17 enrolled!  It was calculated that the present government has spent £241 million on Free Schools in the past twelve months.

Meanwhile, Durham Free School, a secondary school, was ordered to close after a damning Ofsted report, after having been open only 16 months. A Christian school, it was condemned for poor standards, bullying and financial mismanagement, as well as religious bigotry.

THROUGH THE LOOPHOLE:

A loophole allows both Free Schools and Academies to ignore government nutritional standards for school dinners. The Local Government Association  has urged Ministers to to pass legislation to bring them into line.

NEW SPONSORSHIPS:

Meanwhile, our own local academies  have found new sponsors. The Dean Academy in Lydney will be sponsored by the Athelstan Trust. Readers may remember that in 2012, Whitecross School was transformed into the Dean Academy, having been acquired by the Prospects Academy Trust. However, Prospects was found to be providing inadequate support and services, and was required to shed six of its schools. Consequently the Dean Academy has been without a sponsor for ten months.  David Gaston, the head, sounded positive about the new arrangement which includes working closely with an academy in Malmesbury, Wiltshire.

The Forest Academy in Cinderford (formerly Heywood School) also lost its sponsor, E-Act, last year. It will be taken on by South Gloucestershire and Stroud (SGS) College. In this instance the school will have a “brand new curriculum”, and the school will be re-launched in September 2015.

RUTH RICHARDSON

PROTESTING AGAINST TRIDENT:

by ROWAN McKEEVER

On Saturday 24th January, my Mum, Dad and I were among the thousands who protested in Westminster against the renewal of Trident. Trident is our nuclear weapons system which is made up of four submarines and kept on the River Clyde in Scotland.

WRAPPING UP TRIDENT:

As we came out of the station, we saw a crowd of people walking past, holding signs and banners in one hand and part of a seven mile pink knitted scarf in the other.  We were surprised that we had just got out of the station and we were already part of the protest..  We joined in, holding the scarf and chanting “Wrap up Trident! Ban the Bomb Now!”  After following the scarf around for a few minutes, we reached the Ministry of Defence, where we saw just how long the scarf really was, and how many people wanted to get rid of Trident.  Tourists on open-top buses were amazed, and took photos and videos of us. Others walking down the streets stopped and stared. It was a much bigger turn-out than anyone had expected.

MARCH – AND RALLY:

After a while we were told to move along, and CND workers rolled up the scarf again, ready to be cut up and sent out to homeless people as a kind gift. We turned out on to the main road, where half of it was closed and police were everywhere. We saw big TV cameras recording everything and journalists doing news reports. My Mum and I waved the banners we’d picked up earlier. Hers said “Jobs Not Trident” and mine said “Homes Not Trident”.  After marching past Downing Street (and booing) we reached Parliament Square where a rally took place and there were speakers from many places, including a woman who sang “Four Minutes to Midnight” which was a really moving song and made us think about how short four minutes really is. And that people would only have that much time to save themselves.   Then the Green Party’s deputy leader, Shahar Ali, filled us in on all the facts – such as, it has cost £3 billion just to review whether to renew Trident or not; and if the renewal did take place it would cost a horrifying £100 billion!

WASTING MONEY?

Personally, I just can’t understand why anyone would even consider that. There are homeless people who don’t even get enough food , people without jobs , schools having to expand to fit in all the children applying for them and people waiting over four hours to see a doctor in NHS hospitals. So why is £100 billion going to be wasted on nuclear weapons which won’t be used and are just for “safety”? It is completely absurd.

I am pleased I went on the protest, because it was an unusual way of getting the point across to the people of our country. Also, it was a kind gesture to give the pieces of the scarf to people without homes. Thirdly, and finally, it shows that the people of London are doing what the Government should be doing – helping the homeless instead of wasting money on nuclear weapons.

I hope the Government can now see that people in Britain are against the renewal of Trident. I will go on all protests possible to make sure the nuclear weapons are not renewed.

bomb_tree

LABOUR’S ELECTION POLICIES: The writing’s on the wall

In Guest Feature on March 5, 2015 at 7:36 pm

An assessment by HARRY BARNES former Labour MP for North East Derbyshire, and is a member of the ILP. 

With a speech in Manchester just after the New Year, Ed Miliband launched Labour’s General Election campaign.  Yet we may not know the full thrust of Labour’s policy proposals until those are confirmed in the final publication of the General Election manifesto.  There are, however, plenty of writings on the wall to examine.

These can be found in a series of eight substantial policy documents which were endorsed at the Party’s 2014 conference, under the National Policy Forum procedure.  Given the centralised control which now operates  within the Labour Party, it is inconceivable that the proposals  they contain  don’t have the general backing of the party’s leadership. Or at least of its leader.  Especially as afterwards, a 52 page document was published entitled Changing Britain Together which contains 114 bullet points drawn from the agreed Policy Documents. This is a summary which has the full endorsement of Ed Miliband and starts with his words, “My mission is to make Britain work for everyone, not just for a privileged few”.

THE CENTRE GROUND?

The problem with lengthy sets of proposals is that people can draw selected material from them to fit in with their own interests and viewpoints. When Ed Balls says that Labour still occupies the “centre ground” in British politics (as if we were still in the days of New Labour!), then it is an interpretation he is  keen to push at the heart of the Labour Party. But my own interpretation of the central thrust of Labour’s policies and of what Ed Miliband’s position would be if he was to find himself elected Prime Minister, differs from that of Ed Balls. But beware. Perhaps I am just being as selective in a counter direction. And I don’t have any clout at all, but Ed Balls still does.

OR PERHAPS NOT?

I am not claiming that Labour’s documents reveal that we are heading significantly to the left in some democratic socialist direction. But they do seem to offer a programme which seeks  a) to regulate the current crude role of capitalism and b) produce a more equitable society. If so, this approach is at least Labourite, if not fully Socialist. And it could open up a voice for the left in the Labour Party which it has not enjoyed over the past two decades. In my experience, we could at least get listened to and have some influence at the margins as in the days of John Smith.

I give below some snippets in only one of the categories which can be drawn from Labour’s National Policy Forum report.  Such proposals need to be pressed, to ensure that they finally appear in Labour’s election manifesto. If we win, these items will need to be on the agenda of a Labour Chancellor of the  Exchequer – whoever that might happen to be.

On Improving Wages and Working Conditions:

Strengthen the National Minimum Wage. Expand the Living Wage. Advance the role of Pay Review bodies. Stamp out “Zero Hours” abuse. Review TUPE’s rules to avoid a race to the bottom on pay. Pursue equal pay for equal work. Expand the work of the Low Pay Commission to tackle in-work poverty.  Ensure that there is an employee representative on re-numeration committees. Support flexible working for parents. Provide proper health and safety in the workplace. Ensure that self–employed workers are protected. Use a European Court of Justice’s ruling to assist in calculating holiday pay.

All this covers only one area of what is proposed for Labour’s likely manifesto. There are also important commitments  made for young people, education, energy, climate change, transport, the NHS, disability, pensions, policing, security, Europe, immigration, our global role, an equitable tax structure and fair and sustainable forms of economic growth.

Summaries of all these additional areas and more can be found on a blog “Three Score Years And Ten”. It has been running for over eight years, since my 70th birthday!

REVIEW / SYNOPSIS: Hannah Arendt

In Guest Feature, Reviews on November 11, 2014 at 12:48 pm

Yasemin Sari offers a review of the film ‘Hannah Arendt’ (2012 – now available on DVD) and in doing so gives us an overview of Arendt’s most important work. Sourced & edited by C. Spiby, this article first appeared in Philosophy Now, issue 100 in a slightly different format. 

A man walks a dark road. And is kidnapped. That man is Adolf Eichmann, ex-SS officer, Nazi bureaucrat and one of the architects of the Holocaust. He is captured in Buenos Aires by Mossad agents. It is 1961.

A woman stares at the ceiling, smoking a cigarette. This is Hannah Arendt, thinking.

Margarethe von Trotta’s recent biopic Hannah Arendt hit the big screen on the 50th anniversary of Arendt’s book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963). Arendt first published it in The New Yorker as a series of articles following Eichmann’s trial at the District Court of Jerusalem in 1961. This work occupies a special place in Arendt’s corpus, as it appeared after her The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and The Human Condition (1958), but before her masterful investigation into how we think, The Life of the Mind (published posthumously in 1978).

In the Origins, Arendt analyzes the circumstances which give rise of totalitarianism, while in The Human Condition, she posits the idea that political action is the freedom-manifesting self-disclosing action of the individual in concert with others, grounded in conditions of plurality and equality. Both of these works stand at the core of her political theory.

Her Eichmann book is a fact-based report that presents a reflective political judgment about a man and his deeds, while The Life of the Mind is the culmination of her thinking, where she presents the activities of the mind; that is, of thinking, willing, and judging. The chapter on judging was never completed but we get an insight into how she differentiates thinking and judging and the relationship between them that is significant for understanding Hannah Arendt the public thinker. And without any reservation, I can say that von Trotta’s film aims at capturing the relationship between thinking and judging for Hannah Arendt (played by Barbara Sukowa).

Arendt the Public Thinker

‘Where are we when we think?’ is one of the central questions Arendt poses in The Life of the Mind. Although this question focuses on an invisible activity, one of the central tenets of Arendt’s work on thought concerns spatiality and how this relates to the significance of appearance in human life. As she says:

“Mental activities are invisible themselves, and… become manifest only through speech. Just as appearing beings living in a world of appearances have an urge to show themselves, so thinking beings, which still belong to the world of appearances even after they have mentally withdrawn from it, have an urge to speak and thus to make manifest what otherwise would not be a part of the appearing world at all.” (The Life of the Mind, p.98)

For Arendt, thought is manifest in conversation. Conversation happens at two levels: one personal, and the other interpersonal. In thinking, we are in a dialogue with ourselves. Thoughtlessness, then, for Hannah Arendt, is the absence of inner dialogue. This thoughtlessness, in turn, leads to the absence of judgment, which is a ‘moral collapse’.

And Von Trotta does a brilliant job in depicting Arendt’s conversations. We see with almost every significant character in her life: Mary McCarthy (played by Janet McTeer), someone with whom she shares private thoughts; her husband Heinrich Bluecher (Axel Milberg), whose love and companionship is revealed not only by words but also by expressive gestures and kisses; and with her old friend Kurt Blumenfeld (Michael Degen), whom she listens to, laughs and argue with, and seeks to be heard by.

This movie is about a particular period in Arendt’s life, and its mastery is in showing us that where she stands cannot be understood without understanding where she has come from and what she has left behind.

The relationship between her present and past features in three flashback scenes where we see her conversing with her former teacher and lover Martin Heidegger (Klaus Pohl), who later joined the Nazis. In Heidegger’s office in Marburg, we see him tell the young student Arendt, that, “thinking is a lonely business.”

By contrast the film brings to life Arendt view that thought is meaningful only when it is heard in public.

The culmination of the quest for meaning comes when Arendt delivers a lecture. We hear her talk about the inability to think and its outcomes while at the same time showing her own courage to speak to the world:

“In refusing to be a person, Eichmann utterly surrendered that single most defining human quality, that of being able to think. And consequently, he was no longer capable of making moral judgments. This inability to think created the possibility for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale, the likes of which one had never seen before. It is true, I have considered these questions in a philosophical way. The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge, but the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And I hope that thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in these rare moments when the chips are down.”

Politics & Judgment

The only recorded appearance we have of Arendt is her famous television interview with Günter Gaus in 1964, in which she claims that she is not a philosopher. This statement has been interpreted in several ways. I contend that there is a simple way to understand it.

Firstly, Arendt meant she was a critic of traditional political philosophy. Her criticism lies in her questioning the ‘ideal’ elements found in certain political doctrines starting from Plato and culminating in Marx and Hegel. Unlike them, Arendt didn’t offer us a vision of a future state of human society stemming from some ideal-directed (‘teleological’) understanding of history or human behaviour.

Secondly, Arendt did not propose an ideal theory of politics because she didn’t believe that ‘politics’ or ‘the political’ even exists as an ideal, abstract entity. Instead, politics, or the political, exists only insofar as it exists between human beings (see Promise of Politics, p.95).

Arendt contends that ‘the political’ is not an inherent quality of any action or thing, she herself thinks politically insofar as she thinks with others or about the ‘in-between’ of our existence together. (This ‘in-between’ concerns the conditions of living together, which binds and separates us at the same time, yet where we are aware that we share the world with each other.) This ‘political’ thinking can only appear meaningfully in public, since it is thinking with others. Here one reflectively judges what is happening in the world around her. Such reflective judgment enables us to understand the world and what kind of world we want to be part of.

hannah-arendtSo plurality is a condition for thinking in this sense, and this thinking is a precondition for judging. Adolf Eichmann, however, did not think; hence, he did not judge. In turn, through his actions, he demonstrated what Arendt infamously labelled “the banality of evil.” Here she put forth neither a general rule nor a philosophical thesis concerning the nature of evil, but rather, an explanation of a particular phenomenon in order to show how this instance of evil was possible. Von Trotta forcefully presents Arendt’s judgment as she is conversing with her old Zionist friend Blumenfeld, and says: “Eichmann is no Mephistopheles.”

Eichmann’s evil consisted in its banality. It was not condemnable because of its demonic (non-human) qualities, for his evil was not demonic. It was, however, still un-human in the sense that in the absence of his thought this human being had no presence to himself. Arendt’s term ‘banality of evil’ in no way excuses Eichmann’s actions: they were evil, and they led to a vast genocide, and he was responsible for what he had done. He did not stand in indifference, nor did he resist. He acted, in Arendt’s words “without motives” – which points to the absence of an inner dialogue with himself. Von Trotta’s use of newly-found original footage from the trial emphasizes the particularity of Arendt’s judgment, and how she saw the man, whom she judged to be a ‘nobody’.

Judging Arendt

There is an argument throughout the film about what kind of a person Hannah Arendt was: how she lived, thought, wrote, spoke, and smoked.

She cherished her relationship with her loved ones, and found this to be at the root of her existence. We see the importance of this in a scene where her husband tries to leave the house without interrupting her while she’s writing. He says that philosophers should not be interrupted while they are thinking, and she replies, “But they cannot think without kisses.”

Arendt responded to the world around her in her quest for truth – not for eternal truth(s), but for the meaning found in one’s judgment of what appears to them. Many critics have taken issue with her shift from her analysis of the Nazi terror as ‘radical evil’ in The Origins of Totalitarianism to her later idea, the ‘banality of evil’, in Eichmann in Jerusalem. As we see in the film, this judgment on Eichmann was welcomed neither by Arendt’s close circle of friends, nor by the Jewish community, nor by The New Yorker readership at large. She was accused by Gershom Scholem of not loving the Jewish people (in the film these words are uttered by Kurt Blumenfeld, at what we understand to be his deathbed). To this Arendt replies, “I only love my friends. This is the only love I am capable of.”

As she makes clear in The Life of the Mind, thinking is a faculty of the mind, and the mind is different from the soul that moves us, as the seat of the passions. For Arendt, lack of human sentiment was not enough to explain evil. Our shared world can only be meaningful and good when we can be seen and heard by others. The principle of this involves not sentiment, but thought, whose reality can only tangibly appear in conversation, maintained only through our public use of reason. What Arendt does by way of Eichmann’s trial is to argue that evil lies not in the passions of a monster, but rather, in Eichmann’s inability to reason with and for himself.

This film urges us to think, to reason and it shows us that the stakes are high. One needs to have the courage to think, and to make one’s thoughts public. Von Trotta shows us that Arendt would have been unlikely to give up this courage. To Heinrich Bluecher’s question as to whether she would have written what she had written had she known the consequences, she replies, “Yes,” and so affirms her responsibility to the world.

© Yasemin Sari 2014

Yasemin Sari is working on Arendt for her PhD at the University of Alberta, Edmonton. Thanks to Yasemin and all at Philosophy Now for their permission in reprinting this article.

LOST THE ARGUMENT? SO SHIFT THE GOAL POSTS

In Guest Feature on September 6, 2013 at 12:46 pm

A look at how the Health Service treats those in its care in Wales: by Dr. Brian Gibbons

Devolution was a major radical constitutional reform by the last Labour government. In recognising the national, social and cultural diversity across the UK, devolution has enhanced the democratic basis of our politics. Devolution allows each of the four administrations to innovate, and develop policies from which the other administrations can learn – for good or bad.

Health is a major area of responsibility for each of the devolved administrations and it is an obvious area where these varied approaches can be studied.

DEVOLUTION IN ACTION:

In January 2003, the Welsh Assembly voted in favour of a comprehensive ban on smoking in public places, the first national democratic body to do so. This mandated the Welsh Government to lobby Westminster for powers to give effect to this decision. In March 2004 the Irish Republic became the first country to implement such a smoking ban, followed by Scotland in March 2006. With clear evidence that the ban worked, a comprehensive smoking ban was legislated for Wales and England, coming into effect in 2007.

As part of its manifesto for the 2003 Welsh Assembly election, Welsh Labour proposed to end prescription charges. The management of long-term illnesses such as asthma, blood pressure, heart disease, arthritis and cancer are becoming more important in promoting health amongst the working class population. However, there was clear evidence that many patients were not able to afford the multiple prescriptions that the best treatment for these conditions required. In addition, the loss of free prescriptions was a barrier for many people in moving from unemployment to work.

In April 2007, free prescriptions became a reality for Welsh patients. The main concern had been that it would lead to an explosion in prescription costs. But this did not happen and they are now free in Scotland and Northern Ireland as well.

Whilst New Labour was in power, the three devolved administrations were never very keen on the use of PFI to build or renew their hospital infrastructure, and took a cautious line. The wisdom of this approach is now becoming apparent, as the English NHS finds itself tied into many expensive and inflexible contracts. In Wales the NHS was able to introduce free hospital parking without re-negotiating with PFI companies who were using parking charges as a funding stream.

PARTNERSHIP NOT PROFIT:

Another area of major difference between Westminster and the devolved administrations has been the role that the private sector should play in health care delivery. The Welsh Government has consistently taken the view that partnership rather than commercial competition is the best way to deliver more effective and equitable health services.

This view is largely shared by the other devolved governments in the UK, even though they each have different ruling political parties. In 2004 the Scottish Government took matters further by abolishing NHS trusts and thus eradicating the internal market in that country. Welsh Labour announced a similar move in its 2007 Assembly election manifesto, and set up seven integrated local health boards in October 2009.

These moves stand in stark contrast to the Tory/Lib Dem coalition’s approach enshrined in the Health & Social Care Act, which passed into law last March. This highly divisive and controversial legislation places the very essence of a public service NHS at risk.

A DAGGER AT THE HEART OF THE NHS:

It is true that when people are ill, all that matters is that they get appropriate quality treatment in an appropriate and timely way, regardless of the provider. Some have used this to argue that the British public are indifferent as to who provides their health and social care. However, there is little doubt that the overwhelming majority wants the NHS to stay as a public service – and they were delighted with the way it was celebrated at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics.

This view is also shared by the overwhelming majority of the NHS workforce. The Health & Social Care Act has provoked a storm of protest from those who work in the service. Virtually all NHS staff bodies campaigned vigorously against the Act. Many Royal Medical Colleges were obliged reluctantly to join the fray, often in response to angry grass roots opinion.

Already over a hundred private sector firms are lined up to contract for NHS services in England. In 2012, the Nuffield Trust/IFS estimated that the English NHS contracted for £8.7 billion’s worth of services from non-NHS providers. This is a 55 per cent increase since 2006. Organisations such as Virgin Care, UK Care, Circo and Circle are lining up for further rich pickings as the Health & Social Care Act is rolled out.

LOST THE ARGUMENT:

The public and NHS staff in England remain totally unconvinced about the direction that their NHS is taking. The Tory/Lib Dem coalition has clearly lost the argument. Over recent months it has given up trying to defend its own position and has sought to shift the argument to one about the performance of the NHS outside England – especially in Wales. But this is only a desperate smokescreen to divert responsibility for the failure of its own policies.

The differences in performance and patient experience in England and Wales is not something that has just happened since the Tory/Lib Dem coalition came to power. It is long standing. It is partly due to differences in policies, but it must also be seen as an outcome of the different levels of wealth, private health care use, demography and health experiences in the two countries.

Wales has an older population than England, which has a major effect on disease patterns. The levels of illness have historically been higher, a reflection of industrial and social economic deprivation. Similar levels are also seen in equally disadvantaged parts of England. Service delivery is more challenging due to Wales’ relatively large rural land mass, and because many of the most disadvantaged communities are in post-industrial valleys. This is in contrast to the more compact population concentrations in England.

Any survey of health service performance between the four countries can show a very wide range of experiences. Recent reports by the National Audit Office and British Medical Journal show that no single country is best or worse at everything. The picture is much more varied and figures can easily be cherry picked to plead a particular case. The National Audit Office report summarised the situation as follows: “… we cannot draw conclusions about which health service is achieving best value for money. Where comparative data are available, we find that no one nation has been consistently more economic, efficient or effective across the indicators we considered.”

NATIONAL WELSH SURVEY:

In the last twelve months the Welsh Government undertook a national survey of the opinions of 4,500 people across Wales on how the public services were run. It showed that Welsh people felt that their Government was clearly outperforming that of the UK. About 96 per cent of respondents felt that they had been treated with respect when they last used the NHS in Wales, with 90-92 per cent happy with the care received. This verdict speaks for itself.

CHOICES AND PRIORITIES:

Across all of the UK, the NHS is facing the challenge of service re-design to deliver high quality sustainable services in the 21st Century. This is made all the more difficult due to the disastrous impact of the UK Government’s austerity programme. The devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have chosen to move forward with a public service model. In England, patients and staff face a top down, unwanted, dogma-driven programme of change which indeed represents a very dagger at the heart of everything that the NHS stands for.

Dr. Brian Gibbons hails originally from County Roscommon in the West of Ireland. He graduated in medicine at the National University of Ireland, Galway, and in 1976 he moved to Halifax in West Yorkshire to undertake vocational training in general practice.

He later moved to Blaengwynfi, in South Wales where he worked in partnership with Dr. Tudor Hart. He became a member of the Welsh Assembly, representing Aberavon, and for two years he served as Minister for Health and Social Services. He retired from the Assembly in 2011.

TIME TO STAND UP

In Guest Feature, O. Adams on May 2, 2013 at 12:31 pm

NEVER again – I can recall the words emblazoned against images of concentration camps and other Nazi atrocities from my school history lessons. Our minds boggled at how the majority of any population could put up with such tyranny and colluded in it: well now, in 2013, I think I understand.

Through a mixture of propaganda and the credible threat of being pushed into the same position if we dare blow a whistle and speak up against cruelty or even show sympathy – the poorest people in British society are being marginalised, demonised, abandoned with zero funds and left to trawl food skips, beg or try their luck at food banks. People with disabilities, mental illness and terminal cancers are being judged unworthy of any social security or welfare.

Campaigners have alleged 50 people a week are dying despite or as a result of being judged fit to work by ATOS, and a Guardian investigation discovered 680,000 people between January and October 2012 had their benefits “sanctioned”, that is, stopped altogether. Jobcentre staff are facing threatening performance reviews from their DWP managers with the threat of dismissal if they don’t plunge enough people into absolute poverty.

These Jobcentre employees are surely aware that, according to figures from 2010 (probably worse now), that on average 23 people are chasing one job, with the ratio rising when it comes to skilled work. If they don’t pull their finger out and do the evil deed, they themselves will face the same nightmare.

Instead of receiving sympathy and empathy the jobless are seen as somehow less than human, with ever more indignities, abuse and insults piled on them.

Despite policies that call for the wholesale privatisation of the NHS, nuclear rearmament, a ban on climate-change education, a doubling of prison places, and measures amounting to the establishment of a military state, media reports tell us UKIP’s support is soaring.

So as the nation apparently swings further to the right, now we have all but 40 of Labour’s MPs, at the orders of Liam Byrne and Ed Miliband, sitting on their hands as the Government forces through legislation to negate a High Court judgement brought by two plucky workfare victims. The judge found their forcible work terms at Poundland wrong but to avoid paying half-a-million fellow workfare victims compensation – instead parliament in concert has set a dangerous precedent for retrospective legislation.

Yet another punitive measure to be visited on the poorest is the Bedroom Tax – forcing social tenants to pay up to 25% of their rent if they are deemed to be “under-occupying” their house. Rather than exposing from the rooftops the screaming hypocrisy of a cabinet of millionaires forcing the most skint to pick up the tab for their casino-capitalism misadventures, we instead have witnessed bun-fights between different elements of the left, accusing each other of hypocrisy and sabotage.

Grassroots campaigners in Merseyside felt sidelined by a new Labour Against the Bedroom Tax initiative which sprang up after they’d been fighting for months – ironic as Brown’s government introduced it for private tenants in 2008. A large rally in Liverpool was spoilt with brawls between left campaigners attempting to expel known fascist troublemakers from their midst; Labour Party stewards protected the fascists. Meanwhile, in Manchester, a Revolutionary Communist Party supporter faced off “Labour hypocrites” with a megaphone, leading to ugly scenes. Those non-politically aligned could only look on in bemusement.

As protests were held in more than 50 cities, many subjects of the bedroom tax were instead logged on to Facebook, content to blame immigrants rather than politicians – rumours of conspiracies to get “our own” out of their homes to make way for a new wave of foreigners abounded: no matter that official statistics show that immigrants who will work incredibly hard for less than minimum wage and are so attractive to exploitative employers, are very rarely able to get social housing. Asylum seekers are entitled to less than £40 per week and not allowed to work.

By the time this is published, the Forest Anti-Bedroom Tax Action Group (FABTAG) will have launched its first action – a pyjama party in the Coleford district council offices, with a demand FODDC follows the example of Scottish and Brighton councils in guaranteeing no one will be evicted due to inability to pay bedroom tax. FABTAG hopes not to be deterred by inter-left battles; nor does the new People’s Assembly beginning on June 22, and promoted by Tony Benn’s Coalition of Resistance and Independent journalist Owen Jones, among other prominent left faces.

While the far-right-wing, propelled by the Daily Mail and Sun, is gaining strength, many on the left are waiting for a movement to take up cudgels and fight on our behalf. I’d conclude by saying there’s no time to waste waiting for a saviour, and we all need to get stuck in and fight this class war and stop this cruel, fascistic tide from enveloping us all. That means leaving our particular hats – be they Labour-left, Socialist Party, Green or anarchist – at the door and getting stuck in fighting the common foe: capitalism and the ruling class. Fascism? Never again!

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

ASDA: and an interview with BEN REID, Mid-counties Co-operative

In Guest Feature, O. Adams on December 18, 2012 at 1:34 pm

The Waltons of Arkansas, USA would be setting up shop just off Valley Road in Cinderford, if Asda hadn’t been blocked by the Co-op. A judicial review over whether the application had followed due process is being sought by the Mid-counties Co-operative Society. And yet, despite the Co-op being part-owned by the people of Cinderford, others in the town and elsewhere in the Forest have been campaigning on behalf of the American corporate empire.

Why? Because they believe an Asda store would save them money and offer more choice, and because of a build-up of resentment at perceived Co-op actions to block other retail giants. I sometimes shop at the Gloucester Asda store to get ingredients unavailable in the Forest and the ins on offer, so can understand the desire to bring cheaper shopping closer to home. But the planned Asda in Cinderford would not be a “super centre” like that in Gloucester. It would sell nowhere near the amount and range of the city mega store.

Trilogy, the developer behind the Cinderford scheme, has promised 200 jobs (whether these will be full-time, part-time or workfare isn’t known). It has also offered as sweeteners some enhancements to the town centre, and improvements to the bus station – including a bus that will take you straight from Dockham Road to the new Asda store! Yet another incentive not to visit the independent high street of the town!

Do we actually want or need Walmart/Asda in our Forest, especially if it will be at the expense of both the Co-op and independent shops, of which there are still many in Cinderford. The same can’t be said of Lydney, post-Tesco. Walmart, a company notorious for exploiting producers and resources around the world as well as its own employees, or Associates as it likes to call them. Its mighty muscle means that it can dictate “free trade” to its own advantage at the expense of workers worldwide. Walmart regularly engages in “predatory pricing” and loss leaders to wipe the floor with its less-powerful opponents.

About 70 per cent of Walmart employees worldwide don’t last more than a year in the job. Studies in the US have shown employees typically earn 20 per cent less than equivalent posts in other stores. Workers are banned from organising in a union, and there have been many lawsuits over employees being forced to work overtime with no pay, as well as complaints of workers being spied on by management.

While the Co-op may deserve some of the flak it gets, it rarely gets a chance to have its say – unlike those parading with corporate signs through our Forest towns. The Clarion put some pertinent question to Ben Reid, chief executive of the Mid-counties Co-operative (based in the West Midlands, rather than Arkansas!)

* What in your view would be the effects, detrimental or otherwise, of an Asda supermarket opening in Cinderford, for Mid-counties Co-op and the town as a whole?

Inevitably trade will be diverted away from our Co-op store if an Asda opens in the town, but the key point is that a large store on the edge of town which sells both food and non-food products will have a significant impact upon the viability of the town centre.

* How would you respond to pro-Asda campaigners’ claims that a new store would offer more choice and cheaper produce?

Each retail brand has a mix of different strengths and it is difficult to evaluate them in simple terms. The public has demonstrated around the country that they wish to have a choice of retailer regardless of a particular store’s current promotional policy.

* Is resisting the prospect of an Asda store an issue of ethics or protectionism, a mixture of the two, or something else?

It is our responsibility to defend the investment that we have made on behalf of our members. In addition, why should we stand by and allow the jobs of our colleagues to be put at risk when it appears that the local authority has not followed due process? If your neighbour was building an extension to their house without proper consent wouldn’t you protest?

* One charge some are making against the Co-op’s recent extension in Coleford was that rather that it filling a gap in the local market, such as non-food retail, the result is squeezing the business of smaller cafes in town. Why did you decide to open a cafe rather than sell products unavailable elsewhere?

We carried out a survey of our customers and high on their list of requirements in the enlarged store was a coffee shop. As a member-owned business it was therefore appropriate to respond positively.

* What would you say to those dissatisfied with the Co-op who say they would prefer to shop at Asda?

Be careful what you wish for. Towns up and down the country deeply regret the development of the large edge-of-town superstores.

* Is it true, as some claim, that the Co-op had an agreement in Cinderford that no competitors would be allowed into the town (besides Lidl, which was allowed, some claim, as it was registered as a discount store rather than a supermarket)?

Completely ridiculous.

* Some are urging a boycott of Co-op stores in the Forest of Dean. Has this had any effect?

There is a vocal minority but don’t under-estimate the significant silent majority who are strong supporters of our business. We have seen no impact upon our levels of trade.

* What are the advantages for Co-op employees compared to employment rights and conditions at Asda or other supermarkets?

As Co-op colleagues almost all are members and therefore owners of the business. There is a strong colleague-focused culture within the Society. That gives them a voice and a strong sense of loyalty. Our colleague engagement scores are amongst the highest in the industry and we have been rated one of the top 25 large employers in the country. There is therefore a clear indication that the Co-op is a good place to work and we would be quite happy to be compared with Asda. In our view it’s no contest.

* The Asda developer, Trilogy, is offering to improve the centre of Cinderford, the bus station and local public transport system in exchange for the store – are there any incentives Mid-counties Co-op could offer in improving the town centre?

The amount on offer is tiny compared to the profits they and Asda will make from the development. When compared to the long-term damage they will do to the town, their offer is derisory.* If your bid for a judicial review comes out in favour of Asda, what next?

If the judicial review fails, then we will consider our options both in terms of further appeals and the potential re-configuration of our store.

* Why should people stick with the Co-op?

The Co-op is owned by the people of Cinderford. We have supported the town for many years when other retailers shunned it. It is therefore not unreasonable to ask that the actual owners of the business show their support. If they are unhappy with any aspect of our business they are able to express their views freely to management either directly or at our Member meetings and we will do our best to respond.

That is not an offer that will be made by American-owned Asda.

ArticIe and interview by OWEN ADAMS