Thursday, 31 July 2008

Polemical Shadow Boxing

As a general rule, I don't mind Socialist Worker too much. In my opinion it does strike a patronising pose from time to time, but on the whole it's a good read. And I am a big fan of the design, it is easily the brightest and best-designed paper on the far left. But one thing that does annoy me, and I know the SWP are not unique in this, is polemical shadow boxing. If you're going to have a go at a rival tendency and/or a body of ideas, it's only right and proper you name them, in my opinion. And when this hits close to home, it really rankles. Turn to this article from the 22nd July issue. Anindya Bhattacharyya writes:
BNP leader Nick Griffin had vowed to use Stoke as a launching pad for a campaign against Muslims to coincide with the sentencing of Habib Khan, who was convicted earlier this year of the manslaughter of Nazi thug Keith Brown.

Habib Khan’s sentencing has now been delayed to 29 August, prompting fears that the fascists may hold their rally on that date instead. They plan to bring in Nazis from around to country and tour estates where they have a presence.

If the BNP do mobilise in Stoke, local anti-Nazi campaigners will call a protest against them. Unite Against Fascism is also holding a day of action against the BNP in Stoke this Saturday 26 July.

Some people on the left have described Brown’s death as “tragic” and tried to present him as a victim of “knife crime”. But Brown does not deserve an ounce of sympathy from anyone.
What SW doesn't want its readers to know is "some people" refers to Stoke Socialist Party and these words are taken from the leaflet we have (so far) distributed to some 6,000 homes in Stoke-on-Trent.

Aside from the completely dishonest way of critiquing our leaflet, SW's objections are mistaken. First, whether it was right to describe the death of Keith Brown, the BNP activist who was killed in a dispute with his asian neighbour, 'tragic'. Well I thought it was obvious. It is tragic because a family - not all of whom are BNP members or supporters - has lost a father. It is tragic because the family next door face losing a family member to a substantial stretch inside. Only someone devoid of feeling can deny the very real human tragedy involved. But this is coming from the paper that couldn't bring itself to condemn the murder of three thousand American workers on a sunny day in September, seven years ago.

And there is the second element to SW's complaint: "some people on the left have ... tried to present him as a victim of knife crime". If you want to be pedantic about it Keith Brown was killed with a knife and Habib Khan was found guilty of manslaughter. So yes, a crime was committed and strictly speaking Brown is a victim of knife crime. But the main point - lost on SW - is the BNP have been trying to make racist hay with the knife crime panic, and have cynically used it in this case solely because a white man was stabbed by an asian Muslim. It's not us portraying Brown a victim of the wave of knife crime - it's the BNP! And yet we get the blame ...

If you open a copy of this week's SW, you'll find a report about an anti-fascist day of action last Saturday in Bentilee, one of the wards in Stoke where the BNP holds all three councillors. What the article neglects to mention is how the event was originally billed as a discussion about anti-fascist strategy, followed by leafleting. But as you'd expect from a UAF-sponsored event, the only discussion that took place was where to leaflet and how "hostiles" should be handled. But a debate did occur, albeit outside the main room and between SWP CC member and UAF joint-secretary Weyman Bennett and the four members of Stoke SP who came along. The thing was we had a major problem with the leaflet UAF had written. It was mostly about how nasty the Nazis were (they murdered 15 million people apparently, which seems to be the UAF line) and pointing out the BNP were Nazis. In other words the same fare that has gone out time and time again in Stoke these last eight years with no discernible impact on the BNP's increasing fortunes. Another of our members felt it was patronising, almost wagging its finger at local voters for returning BNP councillors.

In reply, Weyman gave the predictable stock answer. He conceded from a socialist point of view they were inadequate and the SWP would probably prefer to hand out leaflets similar in character to ours, but this would not be the best way to build a unified anti-fascist movement encompassing everyone from the far left, mainstream Labour and 'non-political' BME and religious communities. This can only be done on a lowest common denominator basis, he thought. The problem is if you build an anti-fascist movement limited to pushing a moral argument against the BNP, you have a movement that cannot evolve in a more political direction without the fear of jeopardising this unity. It means the far left hide away their ideas while expounding the hand-wringing establishment anti-fascist views of Christians and New Labour.

If the SWP want to build unity for unity's sake, they're welcome to. But it won't tackle the ideas of the BNP. Socialist Party leaflets take them up politically and use a language we think can connect with those who have abandoned Labour and turned to the BNP as a protest as well as those who support the BNP out of more xenophobic reasons. And this draws on our extensive collective experience of talking to BNP voters and supporters on stalls and the doorstep. To reiterate, the content of UAF-style anti-fascism is determined by the internal politics of popular frontist coalition-building. Socialist anti-fascism is guided by what is necessary to challenge the BNP and undercut its support.

This also appears at Socialist Unity.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Calling All Comrades!

Roll up, roll up, the Carnival of Socialism is coming to town! Well, to AVPS anyway. There won't be any coconut shies or hook-a-ducks, but the carnival promises top quality socialist analysis and wry subversive commentary. But this will be a little different from the recent crop of carnivals. The same old round up of the best of leftyblogland is still on offer, but with an added twist of a theme. Cast your mind back to the end of last month. Sunny Handal of Pickled Politics and Liberal Conspiracy fame hosted in association with The Graun a shindig for liberal and lefty bloggers. This got me thinking about leftwing blogging in general. So priority will be given to contributions that look at how important the internet is for our campaigning, what comrades get out of blogging, why isn't there more bloggers from the 57 varieties of the far left, the state of left blogging and its future ... I think you get the picture by now.

The carnival will hit the streets on the 8th or 9th August. Let me know if you want something included via the comments or email.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Marxists for Middlesex

For those of you who aren’t familiar with darn saaf, Middlesex was a county that ceased to exist in around 1965. It formed the northern and western part of what was to become Greater London into which most of it was transferred. But Middlesex didn’t disappear altogether. Its county cricket club remains and the name still appears in postal addresses, and there is a Middlesex University. It wasn’t the most exciting of counties, mostly samey suburban semis although it inspired Leslie Thomas’s steamy The Tropics of Ruislip and, I imagine, Betjeman’s Metroland. The astrologist Russell Grant used to champion a campaign to restore the county, although I can’t really understand why.

Middlesex County Cricket Club has produced some famous players over the years - Dennis Compton, Bill Edrich, Phil Tufnell and Mike Gatting to name a few. However, in recent years the trophy cabinet has remained closed. They hadn’t added to their silverware for the past fifteen years but all that changed on Saturday when they lifted the Twenty/Twenty Cup. Twenty/Twenty cricket has been around for six years. There are lots of thrills and spills, razzmatazz and dosh. It might not be for the purist but it puts bums on seats, and it is fun.

Brother S is a native of Middlesex, having been born and raised in Potters Bar which is sadly best known for its rail crash. He spent all of Saturday listening to the finals via his pc. Occasionally, he goes to Lords cricket ground to watch Middlesex play. Being thoroughly bourgeois, he usually watches the game from the famous pavilion that is a throwback to a bygone age. Male spectators (gentlemen) have to wear jackets, ties and ‘tailored’ trousers. Female spectators (ladies) have to ensure that their shoulders are covered (presumably breasts as well that are not mentioned in the regulations). So what is the connection with Marx?

Brother S was sitting in the pavilion one day and contemplating that he was probably the only person in there with a
Socialist Party membership card in the pocket of his acceptable black blazer. He felt a bit confused about the apparent contradiction of his quaint but stuffy surroundings and the class war. The game was interrupted for the wonderfully-named ‘tea interval’ (middle-class tea, a cup of tea and a slice of cake, not one’s evening meal) and Brother S wandered over to the club shop to browse the gaudy ties and overpriced replica shirts. Then he saw a copy of the book Beyond a Boundary by the famous Marxist theorist C.L.R James. This was it; the missing link between cricket and Marxism! I bought a copy.

Actually in
Beyond a Boundary (1963) James writes little about his Marxist convictions. But he does give a fascinating insight into the divisions of race and class that determined membership of Trinidad’s top cricket clubs, and the structure of society when he left school after the First World War. The players in the top team were ‘for the most part white and often wealthy’ but ‘there were a few coloured men among them, chiefly members of the old-established mulatto families’. The second most prestigious club was ‘the club of the old Catholic families’ and ‘almost exclusively white’. Then there was ‘a team of plebeians …totally black and no social status whatever’. There was another, ‘the club of the brown-skinned middle class’ that had been founded ‘on the principle that they didn’t want any dark people in their club’. Another team consisted of black policemen captained by a white Inspector. Lastly, there was a team from the black lower-middle class. However, if a player was exceptionally talented he could cross the divides. James was persuaded to join the club for ‘the brown-skinned middle class’.

James was a remarkable man- a versatile scholar, cricket journalist, an accomplished cricketer himself and a campaigner for West Indian self- government. He was the Johnson in the
Johnson-Forest tendency, a Marxist group that operated in the US in the 1940s and 1950s. Possibly his most acclaimed work was The Black Jacobins. Alex Callinicos described this work as ‘a classic of Marxist histiography’ in which James ‘set the great slave revolt of 1791, which transformed Saint Domingue from a French colony into the Republic of Haiti, in the context of the Atlantic world economy and the French Revolution’.

James’ life merits a far more detailed blog. I thank him for providing me with a faint link between cricket and Marxism. I call on all Marxists to get behind Middlesex in the forthcoming Champions League!

Sunday, 27 July 2008

War of the Worlds

I really should declare an interest. HG Wells' War of the Worlds is one of my favourite books ever. Jeff Wayne's musical interpretation remains one of the finest albums I've ever listened to (yes, I know, I should get out more). And the 1953 flick is one of the better cold war-inspired B-movies to have emerged from Hollywood during that period. And then there is the Tom Cruise/Steven Spielberg adaptation, which was shown on the BBC earlier this evening.

It is by no means a bad film, in fact I rather enjoyed it when I saw it in the cinema shortly after its release. And it is still watchable second time round. Plot-wise there isn't much to tell. Aliens turn up, wipe out loads of people, the military proves ineffective against them and the aliens then catch a cold and die. The struggle to survive while making a perilous journey from New York to Boston provides the eyes through which we see the rout of civilisation, the massacre of mankind (sorry, couldn't resist).

There are some things I find incredibly annoying about this film. First is the unashamed gung-ho American fuck-yeah! The invaders may have always been here (beneath our very feet! But more about that in a moment) and may tap into the recurring American anxiety around the enemy within/sneak attacks, but even though it was bacteria that stopped the aliens in their tracks we just have to see the American military take down a sickly tripod who'd left its shields off. We are informed earlier in the movie that "the Japs" had taken down a few tripods in Osaka - we can't have anyone else outdoing Uncle Sam can we?

And yes, the war machines. I've mentioned before how I like my science fiction to be a little bit plausible when it comes to the biology, technology and sociology of alien civilisations, but here WOTW falls down on two counts. First, there is the invasion. Characters speculate the aliens' tripods had long been buried beneath the surface of the earth at least prior to the human colonisation of North America. They are reactivated when their pilots "ride" lightning bolts down into their cockpits. Hold on just a minute. If you happened to be planning an invasion of Earth for whatever reason, why take the trouble of burying fighting machines to reactivate them thousands of years later, when nomadic bands take a good deal less effort to subdue than industrial societies? Makes very little sense to me. And secondly, if you happen to be an advanced alien race of warmongers wouldn't you have the nous to develop inoculations against the nasty bugs swimming around in the Earth's atmosphere? If the US and UK make sure their troops get their jabs before being shipped off, why didn't the aliens have the same sense too? (And that leaves out entirely the ability of Earth-bound bacteria to infect and kill biological systems evolved under very different circumstances. I digress).

I was also left wondering how Tom Cruise would have squared alien invasion with his potty Scientology belief system? As I understand it Xenu of the ancient Galactic Confederacy dropped the bodies of 75 million aliens in the volcanoes of prehistoric Earth, and then blew them up with nuclear weapons. The souls of the aliens were then forced to wander the earth and then attached themselves to the newly evolving humans. These traumatised "body thetans" pour their negativity into humans and are therefore responsible for all the nasty things the human race has done. But if this explains all the bad in the world, what excuse does Tom and Scientology have for the genocidal aliens in WOTW? Were they too seeded with the frozen corpses of confederate citizens in prehistory? Could their invasion have been warded off with a free personality audit?

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Branch Meeting: Afghanistan

It fell to me this evening to pull a lead off out of the hat for the weekly branch meeting of Stoke Socialist Party. My topic of choice was the recent sorry history of Afghanistan. The occupation of Afghanistan tends to be treated almost as an afterthought by the mainstream media, especially when you compare it to coverage of the Middle East's other trouble spots - the occupying presence of US and UK troops in Iraq and the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Furthermore many more people are supportive of the role Britain is playing in Afghanistan than Iraq. A March ICM poll for the BBC measuring public backing for the war in Afghanistan puts it on 40% (with 48% opposed). Compare this with a similar poll conducted in March 2007 on Iraq, again for the BBC. Only 29% thought the conflict was justified. Another key difference is whereas British troops are more or less confined either to barracks or patrolling the border with Iran in Southern Iraq, the government has stepped up its commitment to Afghanistan. Des Browne, the minister for "defence" announced in June that the government will be increasing personnel by 230 by next Spring, taking the total number of troops to over 8,000 and making available greater numbers of aircraft.

My aim therefore was to provide a potted modern history of Afghanistan from the period shortly prior to the Soviet Union’s invasion in 1979 up until the present day. I aim to set out why the US saw it necessary to invade the country, the nature of the resistance to the occupation, a brief discussion of Afghanistan’s class structure and politics, and what socialists should be doing about it.

With the rising prominence of the European empires of the 19th century, Afghanistan was caught between the expanding British and Russian empires. Between 1838 and 1919 Britain fought three wars in Afghanistan to reduce it to the status of a puppet buffer state and ward off Russian designs on its Indian possessions. By 1933 the country settled into a rare long period of political stability. King Zahir Shah ruled until 1973 and tried to undertake a series of modest reforms. During this time Kabul saw the building of its first university and an attempt to become a liberal democracy with free elections, universal suffrage and the establishment of a parliament. However development was constantly frustrated by infighting among the elites, which meant modernisation was a very slow process.

In 1973 the monarchy was overthrown in a coup by the King's former prime minister, Mohammed Daoud, a coup backed by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. The King’s liberal democratic set up was replaced by a Loya Jirga – a grand assembly of various (appointed) tribal/regional leaders. Furthermore the new government grew closer to the USSR and received modern military equipment to ward off the predations of the USA’s regional client states – Pakistan and Iran under the Shah. Initially he also promised many progressive reforms but reneged on them and began to build a dictatorship marked by repressive methods. Having got what it wanted from the soviets, the government began to make overtures to the West and tried to move against the PDPA.

The PDPA was a soviet-aligned political party primarily composed of the urban intelligentsia and army cadres. It was an organisation divided into two factions – the Khalq who argued for a party of professional revolutionaries who would lead the working class in revolution, and the Parcham, who argued for an alliance between the working class and “anti-imperialist” patriotic sections of the elite. Reacting against government repression, the USSR gave the PDPA the green light to overthrow the leadership, which it did on April 28th, 1978.

Like its predecessors the PDPA promised ambitious reforms, but actually moved to implement them. It stood for freedom of religion, secularisation of government, land reform, waiving of farmers’ debts, and womens’ equality. Unfortunately all of these progressive measures, though supportable, were implemented in a particularly heavy-handed fashion. Conservative Islamic opposition was strong in the countryside and was antagonised by a reform agenda imposed through administrative feat. Then US president Jimmy Carter saw an opportunity to lure the Soviet Union into its own Vietnam and began authorising CIA arms shipments and training for the rag tag bands of Mujahideen who had risen against the PDPA government. The USSR took the bait. Already it had been covertly backing the Parcham wing of the government, and when it finally invaded Afghanistan one of the first things it did was purge the PDPA of the Khalq and install its own puppet leader. And so began a war that was to last until 1996.

The war was a disaster for Afghanistan. Casualty figures put the number of deaths anywhere between 600,000 and two million. An estimated five million Afghans fled and the country itself was comprehensively devastated. To give one example, the soviet military systematically demolished and forcibly removed/massacred villages to the south of Kabul to make the capital easier to defend. This kind of stupid brutality not only alienated Afghans from the government, it served to discredit progressive policies generally.

In 1989 the USSR withdrew and the PDPA finally defeated in 1992, but the misery was far from over. The Mujahideen fell upon each other and spent the next four years carving up the country among themselves. This renewed round of bloody civil war was the context in which the Taliban emerged. They were able to gain ground initially because of the promise of ending the war and ridding the land of petty warlordism. From their point of origin in 1994 it took them only two years before they occupied Kabul, and by 2000 95% of Afghanistan was under their control.

In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks the Taliban refused to handover Al-Qaeda suspects to the Americans. Very quickly the US was able to pull together a military coalition of NATO countries and began bombing Afghanistan on October 7th, specifically targeting Taliban and Al-Qaeda camps. Simultaneously the Northern Alliance grouping of old Mujahideen warlords launched a ground offensive with US assistance and ousted the Taliban from Kabul in November, and their base in Kandahar in December. In early 2002 an interim government was formed out of exiles and anti-Taliban militias, backed up by American military power. A new liberal democratic constitution was ratified by a Loya Jirga in 2004 and the first nationwide election since 1973 was held in 2005 on the basis of universal adult suffrage. This came at a price of 5,000 civilian deaths and the destruction of what was left of the Afghan infrastructure.

Since 2005 the insurgency has grown in intensity. Though the Taliban are used to blanket label the resistance there is evidence to suggest not all of it is Taliban inspired. The ethnic grouping they’re primarily drawn from, the Pashtun, has a popular folk history of resisting invaders, be they British, Russian or American. They reside in the south of the country, which is where NATO personnel are most heavily concentrated. Furthermore the insurgency receives a lifeline from Pashtuns over the porous Pakistani border, as well as acting as a magnet for militant Islamists who travel from all over the world to confront the ‘great Satan’.

So why is the US concerned with the occupation of Afghanistan? After all, they more or less abandoned the country to its fate after it has served its purpose for weakening the USSR. To recap the official view, in the aftermath of the Sept 11th attacks Bush and Blair argued Afghanistan was a failed state that was allowed to become a Mecca for terrorist organisations. The West, as defenders of civilisation against the Taliban’s and Al-Qaeda’s barbaric medievalism had a humanitarian duty to stamp them out. This was certainly part of the story, there was a pressing need on the US and British administrations to be seen to be doing something to avenge 9/11. But as is usually the case, there was more bubbling beneath the surface.

Some on the left argued this was a war for oil. Though simplistic there’s an element of truth to the argument. The primary effect of the war was to strengthen the USA's grip on the region. The Carter Doctrine of 1980 declared Middle Eastern oil reserves vital to US strategic interests and would regard any attempt to remove them out of its control as an attack on the USA itself. Hence, for example, the USA’s military response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990-1. The invasion of Afghanistan gave the US a relatively secure base of operations from which it could defend its interests in Saudi Arabia, menace Iraq and Iran, and serve as a starting point for establishing military bases in the central Asian states with an eye toward the Caspian Sea oil reserves.

There have been some economic benefits from the invasion and occupation for Afghanistan. When a country is laying in ruins there is a demand for reconstruction, and there are some indications this has been taking place. In terms of GDP – the measure that adds together the sum value of all goods and services produced in a particular country, it has grown 29%, 16%, 8% and 14% in the years 2002-5 respectively. While not bad on paper, considering Afghanistan is starting from a very low base this is pretty slow progress. These figures however do not factor in poppy production for the global black market in opiates. Some 3.3 million Afghans out of an ‘economically active’ population of 11 million are engaged in this industry. Furthermore surveys have indicated modest gas and oil reserves that may encourage reconstruction.

The problem however is reconstruction is likely to be uneven and will reflect the strategic interests of the US rather than the needs of nascent Afghan capital. The continuing insurgency in the south allied to sporadic bombings in the north, plus seemingly arbitrary US bombings of civilians is not a conducive environment for attracting foreign capital.

So what is to be done? I suggested a number of talking points. First, given the small size of the Afghan working class what kind of strategy would we pursue if we had a sizable section there? How do we make the case against the Afghan war at home? How do we counter the argument that pulling the troops out will leave the country to the Taliban? And how would we win over the popular support for the insurgency in the south?

N suggested opiate production could provide one way of addressing Afghanistan's developmental needs by having it produce for the pharmaceutical industries. If the CWI had activists on the ground a demand of this character would also call for agricultural cooperatives, which would help improve the incomes of the people at the bottom of Afghan society. T argued socialists in the West can spur this development on by arguing for a decriminalisation of all drugs. Heroin should be available free on prescription from the NHS, which in turn would cancel out the material basis of a good deal of crime and the need to expend vast resources on a fruitless war on drugs. N observed that Afghanistan is also a major source of Cannabis. As a material less water intensive and more resilient than cotton, hemp production should also be encouraged.

On the question of the occupation and whether there would be chaos if NATO troops left the country, C noted it's a bit rich to describe the current situation there as "stable". E suggested that as long as the troops are present there will be an anti-occupation dynamic that distorts Afghan society. M said that to replace the troops perhaps a series of militias need to be set up, but as N noted this was part of the problem in the 1992-6 phase of the war, as private armies faced off against private armies. M then pondered whether it really suits NATO to have peace in Afghanistan. If there is no threat from an insurgency it becomes more difficult to justify a lengthy occupation. Plus it provides an exercise in low level warfare and a live arena for testing the latest weaponry. Plus a section of Afghan society materially benefits from the occupation in terms of local contracts, employment, etc.

A said we shouldn't underestimate the capacity of Afghans to drive out invaders, after all they've done it before. But the only lasting solution to the problems facing the country is a socialist one. Thing is, how do we get there? The perspective of troops out needs to be linked with the development of multi-ethnic militias made up of and subject to the control of 'normal' Afghans. A socialist programme would also call for the nationalisation and democratic control of what industry that exists, as well as a redistribution of the land. The only force capable of doing it is the tiny but growing working class in alliance with others. It requires an independent organisation linked up to others in the region. It may well be ambitious and difficult to achieve, but how else can the problems of Afghanistan be resolved?

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Chile: Reform and Revolution

As part of the weekend's Socialist Party cadre school, I attended a commission on the lessons of the 1970-3 period of the Popular Unity government in Chile. I know lead-offs on the Chilean events have become more or less a ritual incantation against the dangers of reformism, but it still remains one of those key moments in working class history, rich in lessons for every socialist, whether they live under a reforming populist-left government or not. Paul Gerrard gave us the background.

The previous 1964-70
Christian Democrats came to power on the 'revolution in liberty' programme, a radical (for a centre-right party) manifesto promising land reform and nationalisation of key industries. However once the CDs were in power their promises were considered inadequate by the left and excessive by more conservative sections of the Chilean bourgeoisie. Having raised the expectations of the working class and peasantry, their failure to deliver produced a wave of opposition that could only be repressed with financial aid and troops from Uncle Sam.

It then came as something as a shock to the ruling class that the CDs were dumped from office by the five party PU coalition. The former's 56% vote fell by half to 28% while the left managed 36%. The two key currents in PU were
Salvador Allende's social democratic Socialist Party and the Chilean Communist Party. In many ways the latter pursued a proto-Eurocommunist course. It was then virtually unique for having carried out a systematic critique of the Third International under Stalin, but had come to popular frontist conclusions. In a way this is understandable. Approximately 46% of Chilean society were working class so any socialist strategy required an alliance between certain classes and class fractions. However, the PCC went a step further and theorised that a section of the Chilean ruling class was 'progressive'. The political consequence of this was the PCC worked to rein in more radical demands and independent activity of the workers and followed the PS's constitutional reformism in the name of not wanting to scare this phantom group of capitalists away.

But this was not the only reason for caution. The PU's commitment to reformist politics meant its programme could be partially stymied by parliamentary arithmetic - remember, the coalition only won just over a third of the popular vote. But also the right did not have the two thirds majority necessary to grind the government's programme to a halt. This meant a series of progressive measures were instituted, such as rent freezes, wages and pensions increases, the setting up of comprehensive education and free milk for schools. It is small wonder then that mid-term city mayoral elections saw a 51% vote for the PU returned. In the face of growing opposition to their rule, the bourgeoisie began to panic. Their withdrawal of capital and investment overseas sparked economic paralysis, which in turn fuelled spiralling inflation - but this was tackled by nationalising the banks, state intervention in the economy and a programme of public works. This had the net result of increasing productivity and reducing unemployment - proof that pressing the nuclear protest button of capital strike can be overcome by a bold package of radical policies.

As the ruling class increased its opposition to the administration the working class were emboldened too. For example, when a CIA-backed protest of truck drivers paralysed the country a PU-sponsored demonstration brought one million workers out onto the streets of Santiago. It spurred the movement further, encouraging the development of neighbourhood supply committees on top of the widening emergence of cordones, or workers' councils. They helped co-ordinate factory occupations, backed land seizures, and defended these gains from police attack.

Unfortunately, though PU had strengthened the revolutionary dynamic in Chilean society, in the main it stood apart from the cordones. It was too wedded to constitutionalism and did not have a strategy for intervening in them or how to harness their revolutionary energies. Without knowing what to do with this movement the government remained 'neutral', with tragic consequences. When you have a situation approaching dual power, where the power of the ruling class is confronted by the rising class power of organised workers and their allies there is no middle way. You either come down on one side or the other, or risk getting crushed by the titanic forces their clashing unleashes.

And so it was with PU. From 1972 the ruling class stepped up its efforts to bring Allende down. A plebiscite against PU failed, attracting 54%, which was well short of the two thirds majority needed. There were rumours of coups and actual purges of the military of PU supporters. To try and placate opposition from this quarter Allende accepted three generals into his cabinet and received assurances the military would abide by the constitution. What he didn't do was act on pleas from the workers that demanded he arm the movement. 

We all know what happened next. A CIA-backed coup led by general Augusto Pinochet deposed PU on September 11th, 1973. Allende died, arms in hand, defending the presidential palace. The workers' movement, the radical middle class and rebellious peasants were crushed, and thousands were "disappeared" over the next 15 years under the military regime he instituted.

Need it have been this way? Instead of usual question and answers a series of thought experiments were posed. If we were part of a revolutionary current with a large following in the cordones, what kind of strategy would we try to develop to take the revolution forward? We had four strategic obstacles to consider. First, how would we try and win over wavering middle class elements? The consensus was a number of demands, some of which were implemented by PU, some not. The nationalisation of the banks could make cheap credit available to small businesses, and the argument made the programme of public works meant they were operating in a more benign environment. The second would be to invite middle class elements to participate in the condones, breaking down barriers between them and the workers by virtue of rubbing shoulders with them in an unfolding political process. The key objective is to convince them they have more of a stake in the victory of the revolution than its crushing under the military boot.

The second concerned the armed forces. It may be a Marxist cliche, but Engels' observation that bourgeois class power rests on "armed bodies of men" was tragically confirmed in Chile. So how to overcome it? The discussion drew on the experience of the Bolsheviks in the Russian revolution - our current would have attempted to fraternise as much as possible with the army. It would have encouraged cordones to send delegations to barracks to invite them to participate, or set up their own, or at the very least obtain a commitment from them not to take action against the civilian population. Against ruling class agitation that would no doubt use socialist opposition to the armed forces as a weapon against the movement, we would undertake to guarantee their livelihoods by offering (radicalised) soldiers places in the emerging armed power of the workers, or transform the standing army into a (voluntary) army of labour post-revolution. At every moment our demands and actions aim to prise the armed forces out of the grip of the generals.

The third problem is the tricky issue of constitutionalism, specifically the counterrevolutionary congress that acted as a "legitimate" and legal source of opposition to the revolution. How this issue is handled can affect wider consciousness, depending on the balance of class forces. As things were on a knife edge in 1973 any demand to effectively disperse congress could drive large numbers into the camp of reaction. After all, with the exception of eight years between 1924-32 Chile has, from 1891, been a parliamentary democracy. It is reasonable to assume liberal-democratic norms have struck deep roots within the population. The task of revolutionaries in this situation is to win the battle of democracy by being the most consistent champions of it, so it cannot be used in defence of continued class rule. We suggested our demands would be two-fold. First, hold new elections. Mass radicalisation and the favourable results from the mayoral contests suggest PU could have been returned with a 50% plus majority. Secondly and running together with this would be the call to convene a constituent assembly, where we would argue the formal abolition of 'official' parliamentary democracy in favour of a council convened of cordones deputies should take place. Of course revolutions are no respecter of constitutional niceties - such as the two thirds majority needed by the constitution to convene a constituent assembly, but taking up this demand arms the revolution with the legitimacy of being steeped in Chilean political tradition.

Finally, how to organise against economic resistance from within and without? As we have seen, the ruling class and foreign investors withdrew their capital, plus the United States in the person of the Nixon administration had been fuelling counterrevolution internally and working to restrict Chile's economic links with the rest of the world. For a reformist government under economic threat, PU did respond strongly but not decisively enough. In the cordones we would have agitated for an extension of the nationalisation programme, but under the
democratic control of the workers themselves. In other words, their resistance is countered by deepening our power by extending the authority of the cordones through occupation and expropriation, and calling for a state monopoly on foreign trade. Allende's economic policy in 1973 started to bare fruit despite the economic attack on Chile, but under the direction of working class self-governance, the effects would have been even more electrifying.

This exercise is, of course, fantasy politics. There's no telling now how a weighty tendency armed with a programme articulating these sorts of demands would have done. Chile was not simply a matter of having the wrong leadership, though of course this was a powerful factor among many. But hopefully what the session showed was despite the national peculiarities of Chile at a certain point in history, there are general lessons that can be drawn to illuminate current and future revolutionary struggles, lessons that can help us go into the fight armed with the knowledge of what's gone before and a strategy that can avoid a disastrous rerun of the past. History does not always repeat itself as farce.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Fiddling While Stoke Burns?

The 21st century hasn't been kind to establishment politics in Stoke-on-Trent. Up until six years ago the council was run by a cabinet of councillors presided over by a council leader. Because Labour had dominated city politics for approximately 400 years the council chamber had become dominated by cronyism and patronage. If you wanted a career in local politics, all you needed to do was sign up to the Labour party, keep your nose clean and it wouldn't be long before you found yourself a seat down Stoke Town Hall. In 2001 a group of local politicos organised under the 'Mayor 4 Stoke' umbrella managed to pull together 9,500 signatures to force a referendum in May the following year on replacing the council leader with a directly elected mayor. Mike Wolfe, the spokesperson for Mayor 4 Stoke was elected in October and served until 2005, when he was ousted by Labour's Mark Meredith (pictured).

It is difficult to overstate how the mayoralty has changed the face of local politics. You would be hard pushed to find a Stokie who hasn't got an opinion about the mayor. Wolfe's and Meredith's actions have been open to wider scrutiny than was ever the case with the old council leader. If more people are thinking about Stoke politics, then that's a good thing isn't it? Not really. The establishment of the mayoralty gutted the council chamber of its decision making powers and concentrated it in the hands of the mayor and the unelected council manager. The former withered to become a glorified committee for rubber-stamping the decisions of the latter, and these decisions have almost without fail been a diet of cuts, job losses and privatisation.

However, this situation cannot continue. The government has called time on this experiment in local "democracy" and requires Stoke adopts one of two systems by May 2009. A return to a leader elected by councillors plus a cabinet, or mayor and cabinet. In addition an 'independent' governance commission has returned a damning report on Stoke's 'broken' system and has outlined
14 recommendations for renewing local democracy.

All these issues were the topic of a
Radio Stoke-organised debate tonight with a specially invited audience of "stake holders". On the panel were Stoke Central MP, Mark Fisher, Staffs Uni boss and report co-author, Christine King, Cllr Peter Kent-Baguley, leader of the Potteries Alliance and a spokesperson for the anti-mayor Democracy 4 Stoke, Staffs Uni politics prof Mick Temple and Mark Meredith himself. With plenty of oppositionist councillors and some mayor supporters in the audience, the scene was set for a potentially combustible exchange of views.

The first question came from Ted Owen, also of the Potteries Alliance. He asked if the panellists found anything particularly objectionable in the report's recommendations. PKB replied that he wasn't too keen on point seven, which calls for the strengthening of political party machinery in the city, which he thought was one of the few things local politics didn't need. He also took issue with the report for blanket blaming everyone on the council for Stoke's woes - the responsibility lay with the mayor and the manager. MM tried to wriggle out of getting tarred with the blame brush by attacking the council for failing to take "tough decisions" in the past. MT suggested the report did not go far enough - he would like to see four yearly unitary elections. This allows for better long term planning and will boost turn out, as, in his opinion, the current system of annual contests "alienates" voters. Speaking in the report's defence, CK said its recommendations were based on the widest possible consultation with local people. Specifically on the party issue, she said respondents felt they did not know the difference between the main parties any more. The report's invitation to stronger party organisation is about making the distinctions clearer.

On behalf of
N Staffs TUC, Jason Hill asked how seriously can we expect the government to take local democracy when they will only allow two options in any referendum? Unfortunately, everyone saw it fit to ignore the comrade's question and answer something completely different. MM chose to harp on about party responsibility to local democracy and MF celebrated the council chamber's representation drawn from nine parties (including the BNP?). PKB, still thinking he was answering the previous question attacked the mainstream parties for being of one mind on all the big issues, such as MM's plans to close schools and push through city academies. MT went further and suggested parties should be banned from standing in local elections all together(!) He argued if this was the case independently elected councillors would be required to stand on their records and not their rosette. This would give us a city governed in the interests of everyone, apparently. In my opinion, such touching political naivete (coming from a politics professor!) is a recipe for a beauty contest, not an election.

Thankfully, Matt Taylor of Stoke
Radical Press repeated Jason's question, and drew attention to the absurdity of the referendum. At the moment it looks as if the government will determine what option will be put forward to a referendum. Whatever this option is - council leader plus cabinet or mayor plus cabinet - if it is rejected the fall back position will be ... an elected mayor plus cabinet! You couldn't make it up! At least on this point the panel were united in their opposition to this absurdity.

Among other contributions, Harry Brunt of Staffs Parish Councillors' Association offered another alternative arrangement for Stoke's local democracy: a parishing of the city, which would bring representatives closer to the people. MT agreed but also argued for a repatriation of powers to the council that have been delegated to unelected quangos, and was also for devolving some budgetry powers to more local levels. He did not elaborate on how dispersing power away from the centre of the council would sit with the tendency to centralise it around the mayor+cabinet model he favoured. MF favoured compulsory voting, which of course is more likely to alienate than engage. MM's response to all this was to reiterate his 'strong leadership' mantra. He argued clear leadership at the top was necessary for 'enterprising ideas', an example of which was ... the imminent mass mail out of the mayor's top tips of dealing with climate change.

It is tempting to treat this issue and all the shenanigans around it as a waste of time. After all, aren't there more pressing matters facing Stoke than constitutional tinkering? Dismissing it as such would be a serious mistake. Not only is the mayoralty a hot issue one regularly encounters on stalls and the doorsteps, it is an opportunity for socialists. When the political establishment is debating about how best to govern us, we need to put forward our own independent positions as a means of mobilising working class people around their interests. As far as
Stoke Socialist Party are concerned, we are opposed to presidential mayors on principle. Direct election strips away any kind of accountability the mayor has to their councillor colleagues and gives them enormous power to impose their will in the face of council opposition. The council leader and cabinet system is deeply problematic and is prone to party manipulation and cronyism, but it is more amenable to popular pressure from below in between elections. That is why we will be supporting this option in any referendum.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Top 100 Political Blogs

Tory self-publicist and feted King of Blogging, Iain Dale has decreed the race for the top 100 UK political blogs for 2008-9 open.

Last year Iain got a good deal of stick for his method of compiling the
top 100 centre left blogs. Dave Complex and John Angliss pointed out that Iain had circulated an email asking respondents to name their top Labour blogs, which he subsequently went on to label 'centre left'. So not only did we see a Labour right-winger like Luke Akehurst weigh in at number 10, but also juvenile tat like General Theory of Rubbish came in way above popular socialist blogs like Socialist Unity and Lenin's Tomb by virtue of being known by the right people. This wouldn't matter if the rankings were just a bit of fun, but as we know the book spun off the list has become something of a reference work for political blogging in Britain. When it came to the combined top 100 list Andy noted that the bias in Iain's method allowed him to run with the spurious argument that left blogging is nowhere as vibrant or well read as the right's, nor is there any alternative to consensus politics.

Thankfully this year it looks like Iain has taken on board these criticisms and completely changed the way positions are determined. To quote,
We're asking for your votes to decide the Top 100 UK Political Blogs. Simply email your Top Ten (ranked from 1 to 10) to If you have a blog, please encourage your readers to do the same. I'll then compile the Top 100 from those that you send in. Just order them from 1 to 10. Your top blog gets 10 points and your tenth gets 1 point. The deadline for submitting your Top 10 is Friday August 15th. Please type Top 10 in the subject line.
So now the left has an opportunity to redress the balance and produce a more representative list. As a respecter of democratic processes I'm not going to be asking readers to vote early and often, but if you do like this humble blog you know what to do.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Reformism Revisited

Members of the Socialist Party gathered in Huddersfield on Saturday for our Northern Marxist Education School. In the afternoon e participated in sessions on the lessons of Chile and Venezuela, transitional demands today and a report on the work the CWI in several European countries. This will be dealt with in a separate post.

Kicking off the morning, SP deputy general secretary Hannah Sell opened on reform and revolution. This isn't a burning issue in the labour movement at the moment as the key dividing line is between those arguing for a new vehicle of working class political representation and those who remain committed to
Labour. But it could become a live issue again should a new workers' party/left formation emerge in the near future. This is why it is important to take another look at the debates that took place in the Second International early in the 20th century, particularly the ideas of Eduard Bernstein's (pictured) and the revolutionary critcisms of his positions. Hannah argued Bernstein's theories reflected the practice and outlook of a layer of relatively privileged workers within the German SPD, despite its formal adherence to Marxist principles. Bernstein's argument, simply put, is that 'objective' capitalist processes were increasingly able to overcome its contradictions. When this is married to the extension of parliamentary democracy a reforming road to socialism opens up, whereby the new society could peacefully emerge from the womb of the old by simple electoral means. Unfortunately, Hannah noted, this cannot be the case. While it is true revolutionary socialists fight for reforms the nature of capitalism is such that the ruling class will always try and claw them back. The pendulum of reform and counter-reform is dependent on the balance of class struggle, and can only be resolved in the former's favour if the working class assumes power.

However, one can understand his opus,
Evolutionary Socialism as a context-specific work, conceived as it was in a period of working class advance and relatively stable economic growth. And it is no accident reformist ideas (albeit those owing more to Keynes and social liberalism than Bernstein) took deep root in the post-war economic boom. But today after 15 years of consecutive growth the reformist impulse has been absent. The boom has been their boom. As the ruling class globally have enjoyed bumper profits US and British wages have stagnated and the neoliberal orthodoxy has overseen a massive transfer of wealth from labour to capital. In the absence of a global alternative to capitalism, capital has not felt any external pressure to concede reforms, as was the case early on in the Cold War. If any reforms are to be won from neoliberal governments it can only be on the basis of successful struggle.

But as we're seeing, these 'boom' conditions are changing. The
Daily Mirror's calculation of inflation (which tracks household bills, transport costs and food prices) pegged inflation at a rate of 18.5%. and job seekers' allowance claims went up 15,500 in June, the largest increase since 1992. On top of this has been the collapses of Northern Rock, Bear Stearns, Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac. In spite of their neoliberal orthodoxies, New Labour and the NeoCons of the Bush administration have been forced to intervene economically to bail these institutions out and prevent further damage. For example, Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac underwrite 50% of US mortgages. Already 2,500,000 plans face foreclosure - one can barely imagine the social devastation heaped on top of this had these institutions gone to the wall.

We must be absolutely clear though. This intervention does not signal a return to the Keynesianism of the post-war period, but if, as these actions have shown, governments are willing to nationalise strategically important companies then there exists a re-opening of political space for reformism's return. And under present political circumstances this is a welcome development. Should reformist ideas grow it reflects an increasing confidence in workers to articulate their own demands and as the brewing crisis deepens the more circumstances will force them to do so. But because of the volatile nature of what's coming, chances are this will be a reformism without a stable reformist party. That image belongs to the post-war period. The experience of new workers' parties and left formations on the continent shows that those organisations who emerge in the political space to the left of social democracy have lost out when they have tried to implement reformist strategies. For new formations the choice is between standing uncompromisingly on the side of workers, or abandoning this independent stance for a few crumbs from the master's table. This is why the
CWI engages with these processes.

In the questions a number of interesting points were brought up. One comrade noted that in a way, we've never really had out and out neoliberalism. Where the precepts of dogma have conflicted with the class interests of capital, it is the latter that wins out every time. For example, Bush was quite happy to impose tariffs on steel imports and rule out foreign ownership of US ports (this incidentally is opposite to New Labour's attitude, who have had no problem green lighting overseas ownership of key British industries). But also the coming period is where the contradiction between the nation state and the global economy could come to the fore. Reformism usually demands something of the state, which in turn could deepen the legitimacy of the state should it grant reforms and (relatively) successfully shelter its citizens from the global economic storm. As we saw in Germany in the lead up to the first world war, the spread of reformist "common sense" no doubt contributed to the initial burst of popular enthusiasm for the war. Another comrade raised the idea that the economic crisis is unfolding against the backdrop of environmental crisis. Depending on the severity of climate change there will still be a boost for green reformist ideas, which have already gained a certain currency in policy circles at the supranational level. If concerted international action can be taken to mitigate the effects of climate change, it doesn't require much of a leap to realise social reforms are possible via these institutions.

In her summing up, returning to the point about reformism and nationalism there is clearly a link. This puts the added onus on socialists to push the internationalist dimensions of our politics. On the promises of supranationalism we have seen some reform-minded ideas emerge from within the global justice movement, such as the
Tobin Tax. While these reforms maybe worthwhile we have to avoid fostering any illusions in supranational entities/ For example, the UN acts as one of the few remaining repositories of political idealism, when its main purpose is to serve as a liberal fig leaf for the machinations of the big powers. On the political consequences of the economic crisis, Hannah feared it would likely have a stunning effect on the working class, at least in the initial period. This could benefit the right - part of the appeal of Cameron is that he's not New Labour. But in the long run large numbers will start questioning the system and begin drawing radical conclusions. Socialists have to help this process along as best we can.

Friday, 18 July 2008

German Greens: Results and Prospects

Thomas Poguntke was the final speaker for the Keele environmental Summer School I've been dipping in and out of these last two weeks. The title of his paper was 'The German Greens: From Protest to Power to Nowhere?' Poguntke's account began with a trip down memory lane to 1976, when the West German 'two-and-a-half' party system saw 99% of votes cast go to the Social Democrats (SPD), Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the smaller Liberals (FDP). It could be argued that was the point where the party system was its most stable and legitimate. However the consensus contained the seeds of its own break up. Bubbling beneath the surface from the late 70s on were a series of alternative green lists contesting seats at the local and regional levels on issues ignored by the mainstream - pollution, nuclear energy and peace. They quickly gained ground - they were able to contest and win seats at the 1979 European Elections and won 27 seats in the 1983 federal elections after clearing the 5% threshold.

The Greens emerged from a fortuitous confluence of long term processes and reaction to dominant policies. As a result of the post-war boom, citizens' movements could draw on more material, cultural and knowledge resources that could be mobilised for extra-parliamentary action. As far as Poguntke was concerned, the greater this diffusion the more likely elite-challenging behaviour will take place. Second, drawing on the work of
Ronald Inglehart, Poguntke agreed there was a shift in the value structure of affluent societies away from popular engagement with 'economistic' issues such as wages, workplace conditions and public services to a growth in so-called 'post-materialist' concerns like environmentalism and sexual equality. New Social Movements already organised around post-materialist objectives provided the backbone for the struggle against the expansion of nuclear power and NATO's decision to deploy intermediate-range ballistic missiles on West German soil. The support for these struggles and values meant there was a gap in the political agenda, which NSM/Green/Alternative activists tried to exploit electorally.

This was initially successful. The 27 seats won in 1983 expanded to 42 in
1987, backed by solid performances at lower levels of representation. The new movements plus growing awareness of environmental issues sustained their popularity, but came unstuck in the 'unity' elections of 1990. In a year when reunification was by far and away the main, if not the only political issue, the Greens were incapable of putting forward a coherent unified position, and were punished by losing all of their seats in the West. The only consolation was their partners from the East, the Alliance '90 grouping won eight seats, ensuring on paper a continuity of green representation. But the party was able to bounce back in 1994 and scoop up 49 seats, thanks to the continued respectable votes at the local and state level.

Parliamentary representation exposed the Greens to moderating pressures. Throughout the 80s the party was wracked with the realist/fundamentalist debate which, in many ways, paralleled the reform vs revolution controversy of social democracy. The 'realists' won out and enabled the Greens to compete successfully within the liberal democratic rules of the federal system. But the price was heavy. Organisationally, the party's commitment to internal participatory democracy - rotation of MPs, salary limits, and grassroots control over MPs were gradually reformed out of existence or abandoned. They were also seen as potential coalition partners by the SPD, which furnished the realists with the weapon of being able to enact policy. However, without exception this meant a watering down of the programme. However, in exchange for adapting to the system the system adapted to them, to an extent. For example, Green ideas gained a respectability and currency they hitherto lacked, forcing the mainstream parties had to take them seriously. The Greens were the first to introduce gender balanced lists, which was picked up by other parties. Environmental portfolios were created in state and federal governments, and the strength of opposition to nuclear weapons pressured the SPD into adopting a unilateralist stance for a time.

The experience of the 80s and 90s culminated in the 1998-2005 governing coalition with the SPD. The Green's most popular figure,
Joschka Fischer was made vice chancellor and foreign secretary and two other colleagues secured cabinet posts. The price of the alliance with the SPD were early crises around the German participation in the Kosovo War and the realisation that shutting down nuclear power stations would take 30 years. Achievements of the first term were mainly confined to "low cost" concessions on increased citizenship rights, consumer protection, gay marriage and renewable energy investment. Luckily the crises came early in the government and were able to increase their representation in the 2002 poll and maintain the coalition. In the second period it was their SPD partner that suffered most flak as it tried to implement neoliberal welfare cuts that hammered its core constituency. Interestingly in the 2005 election the Greens were not similarly punished for acquiescing to the cuts.

What of today? Since the establishment of the CDU/CSU-SPD grand coalition Green fortunes have been mixed as the party system has again been thrown into flux with the founding and electoral success of
Die Linke (The Left). The thousands of activists and millions of workers alienated from the SPD's (continued) neoliberal turn have managed to find a political home outside. The saliency of unemployment, wages and prices has created an opportunity structure Die Linke can capitalise on and has enabled it to overtake the Greens in the Bundestag and the polls. While there is little evidence of overlapping constituencies - as the coalition period seemed to confirm - the Greens have been under pressure to adopt radical policies again. The party is discussing introducing basic citizen's incomes and increased accountability over its representatives. But sitting uneasily with an apparent resurgence of Green radicalism is discussion about other potential coalition partners. At present they're "experimenting" with the Christian Democrats in Hamburg, without any undue ructions within the party. If this doesn't underline the distance travelled by the Greens, I don't know what does.

In the questions and answers there were two that are likely to be of interest to AVPS readers. I asked about the extent of Green/DIe Linke overlap and if there is evidence of the latter taking some votes off the Greens. He replied that as the Greens once formerly drew energies from the NSMs, Die Linke has a similar relationship to the vibrant German global justice movement - the latter has avoided the Greens like the plague. But also it seems both parties are seeking to expand their base at the expense of others. Die Linke is targeting disgruntled SPD supporters and the Greens seemingly everywhere else.

The second question asked about the possibility of a left-green coalition that we have seen in several other European countries. Poguntke replied there was little common ground between the parties partly because of their respective electorates, and that the Greens had long accommodated themselves to the system whereas Die Linke was "unrealistic" enough to campaign against neoliberal cuts.

At the beginning of the question session Poguntke noted new radical formations are faced with an either/or choice. Does the party pursue what he called 'policy maximisation' or influence through government participation. What is clear from Poguntke's paper is the rapid journey of the German Greens from radicalism to the mainstream at almost indecent haste. Some positive environmental reforms have been enacted thanks to this strategy, but accepting the logic of the system has seen them lapse into the kinds of green liberalism and politics of unsustainability theorised by
Dobson and Bluhdorn respectively. In practice they have become the green conscience of the German bourgeoisie. By way of contrast, the British Green parties are much smaller but tend to be more radical. There is a tendency by some on the left and in the Greens to treat each other as potential allies who should avoid electoral conflicts, particularly those Greens on the left of their party and are more oriented toward the labour movement. The left should do what we can to assist these comrades, who in turn will make it difficult for "realists" to adapt their party to the neoliberal consensus. So in many ways the German Greens are a warning to their party. But the same lesson can be drawn by our comrades in Die Linke. Socialists inside need to fight against any drift to accepting the logics of the system. If this struggle fails, the co-opted watered-down fate of the Greens will befall this project too.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Peak Oil and 21st Century Capitalism

As part of the two week-long Keele summer school on environmental politics, Bülent Gökay spoke today on the relationship between capitalism and oil and what this means in the 21st century.

By the beginning of the 20th century it had become increasingly central as a strategic raw material. The British Empire was quick to cotton on to this and ensured it secured a colonial stranglehold over the Middle East after the first world war. As its power waned after WWII the United States displaced its ramshackle colonial ally as the self-appointed guardian of oil reserves in the "free" world. After the
OPEC-inspired oil crisis of the early and late 70s, which showed up the West's dependence and vulnerability, the USA's attitude to oil was formalised in the so-called Carter Doctrine. This policy orientation identified Middle Eastern oil reserves as its vital strategic interest. Any attempt by an outside force to seize control of these reserves would be construed as an attack on the USA itself.

US custodianship has for 30 years allowed a more or less uninterrupted flow of cheap oil to the West. It is the marrow of our technologies and lifestyles, and the fuel that sustains its war machines. To illustrate, 90% of global energy production is oil-based and 17% of the oil produced is used in food production. Contrary to Brown and Darling it is the rise in global oil prices that are driving inflation, not workers' paltry pay packets. And when we cross the threshold of peak oil, if we haven't already, this situation is unlikely to be reversed. In short peak oil - the point where oil extraction becomes more expensive because of reserve depletion and/or greater difficulties involved in exploitation - spells the end of cheap oil. At the same time this is situation is aggravated by the growing demands of China and India. In fact, so pronounced is the tendency that Bülent was willing to stick his neck out and predict a doubling in the price of a barrel of oil by this time next year.

Who is to blame for this situation? Commentators and politicians blame other politicians and greedy companies, but the simple fact is this is an outcome of the capitalist system. The world economy is growing faster now than even during the post-war boom and it is the emerging economies of China and India, and to a lesser extent Brazil and Russia who are driving it. Because of this there is a crisis of profitability threat in the West as the growth of the former group are eroding the positions enjoyed by the latter. Peak oil couldn't have come at a worse time from the standpoint of Western capital.

Can anything be done? Well there is no simple solution. Peak oil will not go away, it is a crisis that's here to stay. The obvious short-term measure would be sensible oil use allied to a culture of limited consumption and conservation. But what chance is there of this in a system premised on endless growth and an insatiable demand for more energy? The only positive solution would be a radical reorganisation of society but, Bülent noted, there is little sign of a movement in this direction.

In the questions he was asked about sustainable alternatives to oil. A 'green' capitalism is theoretically possible, but what are the chances of it happening in practice? Bülent was not optimistic. At present around one per cent of global energy is generated from these sources and there is no research/investment programmes that match up to the scale of the crisis, despite oil companies and governments being well aware of the situation. With regards to the promise of hydrogen power, despite some efforts being made in this direction it requires a good deal of long term investment which is unlikely in the context of neoliberal short-termism. At the moment, despite the crisis tendencies clustering around oil (and the dangers of climate change) it still suits capital to stick with it.

On the topic of climate change, he was asked why the environmental crisis has become widely known while peak oil is an issue debated by very small numbers of people. To answer this question, Bülent argued one has to turn to capitalist class relationships. While it is true climate change represents a set of environmental problems that are likely to cause immense suffering in the near future it doesn't necessarily put the system on trial in the same way peak oil does. Capitalism has tried to depoliticise the issue by turning it into a question of individual responsibility, and turning to the self-same market relationships liable for the mess in the first place for "solutions". There is no place here for government intervention beyond cheer leading initiatives of this sort and legally guaranteeing. But there are no market-based strategies for overcoming peak oil. Renewables require sustained long-term investment and planning. This is not beyond the ken of capitalist states but would involve a clean break with the neoliberal "common sense" of the ruling class.

In conclusion, the scarcity of oil is set to dominate 21st century capitalism. Global economic growth combined with Western stagnation, increased energy demand, a scramble for the remaining resources, a systemic blindness to everything beyond the short term and the effects of climate change is a very gloomy prognosis indeed. In the absence of a mass movement for a socialist alternative to capitalism, you're left wondering how bad things could get before the ruling class feel the necessity to act. I fear there will be a good deal of suffering before that point is reached.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Scrubs Up Nice

The more eagle-eyed AVPS reader may have spotted the odd minor cosmetic change here abouts. I sat down this evening with my web design consultant and she came up with something without any frills but is about a million times better than the previous standard template. It couldn't come soon enough if you ask me. The old design had grated on me so much that I wanted to claw my eyes out every time a glanced at it. Extreme I know, but it happens to be true.

To mark this blog's elevation into the ranks of the better designed (and because I haven't got much else that can be said) it's probably best I draw attention to the latest additions to the jolly old blogroll. Since the last expansion splurge the following have been assimilated to the historic bloc of counter-hegemonic bloggage: Aled Dilwyn Fisher, Anti-Zionists Against Anti-Semitism, Bad Science, Bent Society, Cov Green Voice, Cruella-Blog, Green Left Blog, Infantile and Disorderly, Left Now, Long March of the Penguins, Militant Worker, Postman Patel, Raw Dawg Buffalo, Robbie Segal, Sadie's Tavern, Scribo Ergo Sum, The Heathlander, The Junius Blog, and USDAW Activist. Any more for any more? Let me know in the comments if there's owt decent that deserves inclusion.

I'm also in a bit of a musical mood, so how about Royksopp's What Else is There?