Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Brief(ish) Hiatus

Apologies to AVPS readers for not being on the ball of late. I've got some family stuff going on at the moment, which is more pressing than churning out the latest blog post. That said, hopefully something will flow out of my finger tips later this week should the opportunity present itself. But don't hold your breath! In the meantime either give AVPS a wide berth or amuse yourselves debating fascist-friend-of-the-blog, the 'Sentinel', on this here thread, at least until normal service has been resumed.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Movement-Relevant Theory?

It's about time I did some proper sociology on this blog again. At the moment I'm mulling over a paper on social movements that touches on the relationship between academia and activism. This has been something of a recurring issue as, some of my previous posts (here and here and here, for example) testify.

What is striking about the sociological sub-discipline of social movement studies is the relationship researchers have with the objects of their studies. In my experience those who work in this field manage to have their feet in the activist and academic camps. But if you were to examine contemporary social movement research, there is no qualitative difference between its conventions and those governing other academic sociology journals. Academics write for academics and their insights and findings barely touch the social movement communities. Activists are more likely to subscribe to the literature produced by social movements themselves than
Mobilization and Social Movement Studies. Books by influential academics like Doug McAdam, Donatella della Porta and Sidney Tarrow are less likely to be read than Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein. Therefore a disconnect between the study of social movements and the practice of social movements exists, so, as one of the Russian old beards once said, what is to be done?

This is the problem Doug Bevington and Chris Dixon seek to address in their 2005
paper, 'Movement-Relevant Theory: Rethinking Social Movement Scholarship and Activism'. Their starting point is an argument made by Richard Flacks, who called for the recasting of the social movement theory rolling off the academic assembly lines so it is relevant for activists outside the ivory tower. And the criterion of relevance would be its ability to assist activists in their endeavours. Bevington and Dixon run with this. They argue activist-focused theory offers scholarship a number of advantages. It avoids the theoretical disputes and problems academic theory can get caught up in over what variable to privilege or what moment in a social movement's life course should demand analytical attention. Instead, movement-relevant theory is in a reciprocal relationship with the demands of a movement. The tying of theory to practice "disciplines" theory and stops it from over extending itself in unproductive directions. And also it demands the academic leaves behind their office and gets stuck in with the movement's work.

But there has to be balance. If it is to be credible from an academic point of view it cannot adopt an uncritical tone or regurgitate the movement's ideas. Such an approach would be useless to academic and activist audiences. So there has to be a proscription against confirming preconceived biases - instead one's connection to a movement should act as an impetus for producing the best possible research. And this applies if one is studying a movement one is opposed to: the onus is on providing accurate analysis on its activities and strategic trajectory so it can best be countered.

A lead could be taken from the literature activists do read. Bevington and Dixon show that activists have an appetite for
non-academic social movement theory. Their conversations with global justice movement participants found they were reading movement histories and biographies to learn about practical organising and the problems of motivation, emotional conflict and burnout - issues that, in their opinion, are overlooked by academia. Works cited by the activists included treatments of European autonomist movements, the building of movement visions in African-American mobilisations, and Jo Freeman's famous piece, The Tyranny of Structurelessness. Also academic movement-relevant theory should take the discussions activists are having among themselves as its cue, rather than deciding from the outside what the research priorities should be. Lastly engagement should not end once the period of research is over - the criterion of relevance is whether it is read by activists and used in their discussions. If it is not, the researcher can only refine their contribution by remaining involved and discovering what the issue is: are things being overlooked? Is feedback being incorporated into the research's conclusions? Are the findings accessible to the non-academic audience?

It seems a simple task to re-orientate the concerns of the social movement research community. But as yet, it hasn't happened. Why? It is because research and activism do inhabit separate universes. As we saw
yesterday, the division of labour creates highly specific specialisms and expertise. Sociology and its sub-field of social movement research are an outcome of this division, with its own laws, forms of capital, specific profits, etc. Activism and social movements belong to an entirely different field (analytically) outside of the division of labour. It is difficult to straddle the boundary between the two because movement-relevant theory produced by activists and theory about social movements by academics are produced in different contexts for different audiences and are governed by different principles. There is a qualitative difference between them.

But movement-relevant theory by academics is not necessarily a forlorn hope. It just means researchers have to be honest about the pressures that bear down upon them. True, the desire to get involved in social movements is a good thing, but conflicts between its needs and those of academia have to be negotiated by the researcher - therefore it is best to have these out in the open. As I noted
previously, sociologists have to turn the "sociological gaze back upon ourselves. It follows that if all social phenomena are bound up in ... struggles ... so are we. There's no Mount Olympus from which sociologists can observe the social space below, we are as much part of the fields we study as anyone else. [This] is not for a 'sociology of the sociologists' because it's a jolly excuse for academics to churn out more papers no one is likely to read: it is the condition of scientific sociological knowledge. By looking at our own trajectories, positions and interests in academic and other fields we control for the distortions and biases that are the inevitable outcome of a sociology operating in a society stratified by class and cut across by fields and their species of capital. This can only strengthen the claims our research makes."

Activists who participate in movement relevant research expect it will assist their work in some way. But also, the researcher has to simultaneously convert the knowledge produced into sociological capital, which will involve a certain distortion of the findings to pass the peer review process and help the researcher's advancement in the field. If one is an academic this cannot be avoided, but it can be controlled for provided one is conscious of the positions occupied and likely trajectory, and it is good practice generally (not just for movement-relevant research) to make research participants aware of the effects it will have in the academic field, effects that may not be entirely conducive to a movement's ends.

The production of "engaged" research is far from an unproblematic task.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Commodities and Reification

At the heart of Lukacs' History and Class Consciousness is the three part essay, 'Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat'. It is an important piece of work and a landmark in Marxist philosophy because Lukacs was able, through a close reading of Marx's Capital to reconstruct his theory of reification and alienation a decade before Marx's youthful writings were first published in Moscow. Before Lukacs and the Paris Manuscripts, this aspect of Marx's thinking had more or less been lost, and it would not be until after WWII before either demanded wide attention. This piece discusses the first part of Lukacs' essay, 'The Phenomenon of Reification'.

What does reification mean? To recap, according to
Gajo Petrović in the 1991 edition of A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, reification is the "act (or result of the act) of transforming human properties, relations and actions into properties, relations and actions of man-produced things which have become independent (and which are imagined as originally independent) of man and govern his life. Also the transformation of human beings into thing-like beings which do not behave in a human way but according to the laws of the thing-world" (p.463).

The act of reification is imminent to the structure of the commodity. For Lukacs, it is "a relation between people [that] takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a 'phantom objectivity', an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people" (Lukacs 1968, p.83). This is simultaneously the starting point for investigating the problem of ideology in capitalist societies, and it is a problem specific to them. As we have recently
discussed, commodity production has only been an episodic and marginal feature of pre-capitalist societies. It is only when the commodity has become the universal category and successfully subordinated the social fabric to its will can we properly speak of reification. The commodity is the God particle of the whole process. Through it the sum total of the labour of any given society appears not to be expressed by social relations but by relations between things, and therefore the great kaleidoscope of commodities appears to have a life of its own. What makes this alienation all the more effective is the necessity for working class people to sell their labour power in return for a wage. Our thoughts and actions are purchased for a time and set in motion by the employer. In effect what is immediately and obviously ours is alienated from us for the duration of the work day - it becomes the property of an alien power, capital.

The alienation of labour, the control of the labour process that capital possesses enabled it to remake the division of labour in its image. In pre-capitalist societies social production, in as much as it existed, was tied together by serfdom, fealty, guilds, etc. But the emergence of the propertyless wage labourer, particularly in England after the enclosure of the commons, removed any obligation the rulers had toward the ruled beyond the payment of a wage in exchange for their labour time. Because capital owned the means of production it determined how that labour was disposed. As agrarian capitalism gave way to its industrial successor, competition between capitals were compelled to refine their labour process to maximise surplus value. Acts of labour were broken down into their component atoms through time and motion studies. Optimum times for every single aspect of labour were worked out and combined with other actions to determine the most time efficient way of doing absolutely everything. Any organic unity labour once had was scattered to the four corners of industry. Workers were threaded out along the tapestry of production, each labouring on their part before passing down the line for another to contribute something else.

If the labour process and the division of labour are considered in the abstract, it can appear as a finely tuned machine, as a stunning achievement of the application of the principles of rational organisation. It is ironic that alienated labour, the condition/process that makes such social engineering possible appears next to it as faulty and error prone. Every moment of the work day has been scrutinised and agonised over - any problems that occur in the process have to be individual failures. For Lukacs, the worker finds this machine "already pre-existing, and self-sufficient, it functions independently of him and he has to conform to its laws whether he likes it or not" (p.89). The worker is but a cog in a vast enterprise, and this cannot but help have an impact on the habits of mind. If the mental energy required by the work process fails to rise above a set of continually repetitive activities, consciousness runs the risk of becoming socially disengaged and assuming a contemplative stance
via a vis the rest of society. This "atomisation of the individual is ... only the reflex in consciousness of the fact that the 'natural laws' of capitalist production have been extended to cover every manifestation of life in society; that for the first time in history - the whole of society is subjected, or tends to be subjected, to a unified economic process, and that the fate of every member of society is determined by unified laws" (pp.91-2).

Commodity exchange, the separation of the labourer from the means of production, wage labour, the division of labour are all parts of the same capitalist whole that provide the limitless fuel for reification, which in turn conspires to atomise the proletariat as it is scattered throughout the various branches of production. But the atomised, reified mind is not an unfortunate and irrelevant by-product, it feeds back into the system as the form of consciousness most appropriate to the economics of exchange. Its contemplative state of mind tends to passively accept the fruits of alienated labour as inalienable facts of life. Commodities are produced for sale first, not use. Production for profit is the normal state of affairs. Selling one's ability to labour is just the way things are. But it does not end there. Because reified consciousness accepts all these things without question, and because the worker is alienated from themselves at work, the search for authenticity lies outside it - in the commodities churned out by the production process. In short the reified mind finds itself in the outcomes of reified acts of others, coveting them and contributing to the hold reification has over the (false) social consciousness that exists.

What of consciousness? Though Lukacs never used the term, it is taken here to refer to the process of imprinting reified stories about the social onto popular consciousness. Because rationalisation is made possible through reification, because the production process can be organised on a vast scale, the social can also appear as the coherent expression of one or a few principles. Reified thought spends much time debating the systems and philosophies that are erected on this foundation; indeed, the continual specialisation of the division of labour encourages it. For instance, as tasks become more specialised they are increasingly separated out from the work process and subjected to more rationalisation, albeit one that starts to follow its own unique set of logics. This is the necessary condition for expert knowledge and the various status groups that grow up as gatekeepers around it. They jealously guard their privilege (in a manner superficially similar to the mediaeval guilds) against the claims of other status groups and the proletarianising pressures exerted on them by big capital. They too formulate a reified world view that is ultimately rooted in their social being.

Take for example the development of scientific discourse since the Renaissance. As the tempo of technological development has got more rapid, science, as the pinnacle of applied rational thought, has similarly accelerated and cast its net wide and has founded disciplines, disciplines within disciplines, and specialisations within specialisations. Furthermore it has mainly been the preserve of particular status groups who control access to the status of practitioner through formal systems of qualifications and expectations. In other words, science is as reified as any other form of consciousness. This does not negate its findings, but explains why it is a series of highly specialised areas, despite the occasional fashionable nods toward interdisciplinary practice. Specialisation sees science develop sophisticated methodological approaches to the problems determined by disciplinary concerns. But what it does not do is turn its gaze on the material interests that sustain it, its conditions of possibility, and how it came into being. The history and sociology of science are, well, not treated as relevant to its core function. It is not an issue. Science simply
is.

Returning to capitalism in (reified) popular consciousness, as far as Marxism is concerned, the laws that can appear to govern everyday life are formalities that give capitalism a more organised air than is really the case. In times of crisis these can and do easily dissolve and the natural laws of the system, of chaotic competition in markets (and especially labour markets at moments of high unemployment) and dog eat dog survival are more exposed. For Lukacs there is a tension between how capitalism likes to present itself to the world and is actual operation. Rational organisation may have achieved previously undreamed of levels of production by harnessing the competitive energies between capitals to force a dizzying pace of technological advance, but it is extremely limited. Rationality is strictly limited to the level of the individual and/or the enterprise. To organise the whole of production according to the same principles it applies to workplaces would mean challenging commodity exchange. Therefore a qualitative difference exists between the principles that organise the sum and the parts of capitalism, which Marx summed up as the contradiction between the tyranny of the factory and the anarchy of the marketplace.

There are a number of issues that are yet to be answered. If reification is the result of commodity fetishism, how can the veil be drawn aside and things seen as they really are? How is class struggle possible when consciousness is reified? And if we are alienated, what is not properly ours? What constitutes our authentic self? These and other issues will be tackled over the next couple of essays.

A complete list of History and Class Consciousness postings can be found here.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Pakistan Economy in Meltdown

I haven't really got any time to write a proper blog this evening, so I hope readers don't mind if I bring this article to the notice of those who don't regularly frequent the website of the CWI. This is by Khald Bhatti of the Socialist Movement of Pakistan. In it the comrade looks at what the economic crisis spells out for Pakistan.

The Pakistani economy is facing its worst crisis in a decade, with massive trade and budget deficits, plunging foreign currency reserves and investments, a severe energy crisis, super inflation and capital flight. According to senior economist Qaisar Bengali, “we are on the verge of default and economic collapse. It is a financial crisis and it is very serious. If we are unable to meet our debt repayments, if we are unable to pay for imports, then the wheels of agriculture and industry will certainly come to a stop”. He is not the only economist portraying such a catastrophic scenario; another leading economist, Yousaf Nazar, put it this way; “we should prepare ourselves for the coming economic tsunami. Pakistan’s economic outlook for the next year or two is negative, even if it manages to get the planned three billion dollars in external financial assistance in the next few months”. This is generally the pessimistic mood among the leading independent economists in the country. Some economists are even saying that present economic crisis is the worst in the history of the country.

The Pakistani currency has lost 30% against the US dollar in a year without a single devaluation of the currency taking place. The trade deficit has widened to an unsustainable level of $20 billion. Foreign exchange reserves have fallen from 17 billion dollars to 6.7 billion dollars. This is not enough to pay for imports for even four weeks. The current account deficit has now exceeded 10% of GDP. GDP growth is likely to drop sharply to around 3%, which will imply a drop in the real per capita income of around for 80% of Pakistanis. It was more than 7% in 2007 and 8.9% in 2006. Inflation has risen to 26% (official figures), and food inflation is around 36%. The stock market fell 35% in the last few months – falling from 15,800 to 9,240 points. Foreign investment continues to fall. In 2007 it was $8.7 billion in and has now dropped to $5.19billion in 2008. Foreign portfolio investment declined from $3.28 billion to $41 million dollars in the same period. Overall investment dropped by 9% in one year. In last few months, capital outflow and flight out of the country has increased significantly, as millions of dollars are leaving the country every day. Finance ministry officials put capital flight figures at between 6 and 10 billion dollars in last few months. Both the agriculture and industrial output have dropped.

The textile industry is in crisis and factory closures resulted in the loss of 300,000 jobs in this sector. Textile exports have fallen around 23% in the last year. The suicide attack on the Marriot hotel in Islamabad hit the textile industry and exports badly, as many foreign business delegates canceled their visit to Pakistan.

Based on the latest available key economic indicators in the 25 largest ‘developing’ countries (excluding the Middle Eastern oil producers) in Asia, Africa and Latin America, Pakistan has had the worst fiscal and current account deficit (measured as a percentage of GDP), the second highest inflation rate and the second worst performing currency, when measured in terms of its depreciation against the US dollar, since the beginning of the year. The rapid deterioration of macro economic indicators has exposed the fragility of the Pakistani economy. It has undermined the myth of its “economic progress”.

Amongst all the major ‘developing’ countries, Pakistan’s economy is the weakest and most vulnerable. It needs at least $10 billion to stop its journey into the economic abyss.

Top government officials, including the President, Asif Ali Zardari (pictured) and Prime Minister, Yusuf Raza Gillani, are touring one country one after another to get much needed financial assistance. All these efforts have so far failed. There was big enthusiasm in government circles when the US and Britain announced the formation of a group called “friends of Pakistan” to help the ailing economy. But nothing has happened so far, and now the government has decided to go to the IMF for a bailout package.

It is most likely that international imperialist financial institutions like IMF, World Bank and Asian Development Bank will provide some financial assistance to country to save it from defaulting and going into total collapse. The IMF and World Bank are negotiating a financial assistance package with the PPP-led government. It is most likely that this package will lead to harsher conditions being implemented. This means more attacks on the already impoverished working masses and poor. The government has already abolished the subsidy on food, electricity and other items, as dictated by the IMF, which hit the poor very hard. The prime minister of the PPP government admitted this in a televised press conference. For ordinary people, life has become a struggle for survival with very little hope of relief. Further attacks on living conditions will make the situation even worse for the working class and poor families. The results and experiences of past IMF and World Bank interventions since 1988 clearly show that they may stop the total collapse of the economy in the short term. However, the cost, as always, will be more misery and suffering for the working masses. These interventions in the past have increased poverty, unemployment and hunger and made basic and essential services less effective, but more expensive.

Pakistan is going through a severe energy crisis. Long power failures have disrupted normal daily life for ordinary working people. Power failures, which are known as load shedding, are compounding the economic crisis. They are crippling industries and businesses. People are spending 12 to 14 hours a day without electricity in the cities and 16 to 18 hours in the rural areas. The prices of generators and UPS (uninterrupted power supply systems) have already been doubled. This puts them out of the reach of working class and middle class people. Thousands of workers have been made unemployed because of power failures. The energy crisis has already cost the economy more than $8 billion in 2008.

The present state of the economy has not developed overnight. It is the direct result of the economic policies pursued by previous governments and continued by the present PPP led government and compounded by the current international crisis. The Musharaf-led military regime created many bubbles during its 9 year reign. All these bubbles have started to burst, one after the other. General Musharaf, and his economic team, was headed by the blue-eyed boy of IMF and World Bank, Shaukat Aziz. He was appointed finance minister by Musharaf and then promoted to the post of Prime Minster. The Musharaf regime achieved high growth rates through money- pumping policies. The first bubble was created through the stock market which first burst in 2005 and then again in 2007-8. The regime poured billions of rupees into the stock market and share values started to climb. The big investors and speculators also started to invest and the market index reached an historic high.

The second bubble was created around the real estate business which burst in 2007. Through the speculation, the price of lands and houses rose to unsustainable levels. In some cities the prices went up to 400% and even middle class people were finding it hard to buy a home, or piece of land. In 2007, property prices dropped almost 50% which led to a major crisis in the real estate business that still continues today. The third bubble was created around consumer spending. The regime encouraged the banks to start different schemes to offer cheap loans to the middle class and public sector workers to purchase cars, houses, TVs, refrigerators, air conditioners and other household items. This consumer boom helped the auto and electronic industries to flourish. This spending-fueled bubble started to burst in 2007. Rising food prices, the energy crisis and falling incomes triggered a crisis in consumer financing, as people were finding it difficult to repay loans. Many new supermarkets and retail stores were established during the consumer boom. Now many of these big supermarkets find themselves in a very different situation. According to one local supermarket chain, their sales have dropped by almost 50%. The general manager of this super market chain said “I have never experienced this situation before. Even well off customers who used to buy things in big quantities are now buying according to their budgets and buy less”.

The high growth rate was mainly based on these bubbles and on foreign aid. The US alone provided aid and assistance to the tune of 12 billion dollars since 2002. The IMF, World Bank and ADB (Asian Development Bank) all provided generous loans to Pakistan. Pakistani immigrants in the US also sent billions of dollars in remittances, which were also used to simulate the economy. The regime also used privatisation as a means of collecting more money and attracting foreign investment from the Middle East to boost the economy for a short period of time. The neo-liberal economic agenda and free market economic policies were implemented with full force and vigor. The present economic collapse and severe crisis is the result of these policies.
Super inflation and poverty

According to the official figures, overall inflation stands around 26% and food inflation 36%. But independent economists are saying that actual figures are a bit higher than official ones. This is the highest rate of inflation in the last 3 decades, and has hit millions of working people and the poor very hard. The prices of food items have been doubled within one year. The price of wheat flour has risen from 15 rupees per kg to 36 rupees per kg. The price of one egg has gone up from 3 rupees to 6 rupees. The price of a chicken has risen from 80 to 145 rupees. The same applies to the prices of fruit and vegetables. An average working class family used to spend around 60 rupees to cook vegetable curry. Now it will cost around 120 to140 rupees. Household expenditure surveys indicate that the sharp rise in food prices have had a devastating effect on the poor. According to the Asian Development Bank (ADB), food expenditure makes up for an average of about sixty percent (60%) of the household expenditure for an ordinary family in Pakistan. The ADB also pointed out that a 10% increase in food prices would drive an additional seven million into poverty; a 20% increase. A 30% increase would drive 14.7 million more into poverty. According to this analysis, 27 million Pakistanis have fallen below the poverty line in one year because of the increase in food prices. Nearly 87 million people, out of the total population of 160 million, live below the poverty line. 88% population earns less than 2 dollars a day. On the one hand, more people are falling below the poverty line but at the same time the people already living in poverty are being driven deeper into destitution. According to the World Bank report, 77% of Pakistanis are exposed to food insecurity and the quality of life is falling rapidly. This means that more than two thirds of the population vulnerable.

According to the consumer price index (CPI) which covers the retail prices of 374 items in 35 major cities, in September 2008, transport and communication charges shot up by 40%, food and beverages by 30.9%, fuel by 21.48%, laundry by 20%, textiles and footwear by 17%, education and house rent by16%. House hold furniture and equipment rose by 14% and medical expenses by a staggering 135%. These increases, in just one month, tell the whole story of what has happened in the last year. The prices of basic items have left working class families struggling to make ends meet and they have been forced to cut their expenditure on health and children’ s education. Pensioners, the poor and low income working class families have been forced to spend less on food, clothes, medicines, transport, education, rent and utilities.

The main reason for this rampant inflation is that the government gives a free hand to the cartels of different industries. The big traders and dealers increase the prices according to their wishes. The free market economy runs unchecked over the lives of millions of working class people and poor without any hurdles. The privatisation of state owned industries, services and businesses in last two decades have allowed the private sector to develop monopolies and cartels to take advantage and to maximize their profits. Capitalist greed has pushed millions into poverty, hunger and misery. Capitalism as an economic system bases itself on profits and exploitation. Production under capitalism is not done to meet the needs of the people but to make the maximum profit. It is necessary to end this system of greed, profit and exploitation and to replace it with a system which produces goods to meet the needs of the people. The overthrow of capitalism and the transformation of society along socialist lines will create the conditions in which everyone can have access to enough decent food, decent housing, education, health care, transport and other utilities and services. The nationalization of industries, banks, insurance companies, services, natural resources and other sectors of the economy under the democratic control of the workers would provide the basis for the provision of basic services and utilities to everyone. Humanity would be free from hunger, poverty, exploitation, war, repression and all sorts of discrimination. Neo-liberalism and free market economics have failed to solve the basic problems faced by the working masses, instead they has aggravated the already existing problems. Free market economics has failed because it works only in the interests of the handful of rich fat cats and big business and ignores the needs of millions of people. The problems of the working masses can only be solved on basis of socialism.
The Socialist Movement demands:

* Reduce the prices of food, energy, fuel and transport by at least 50%.
* Stop privatization. Nationalize industry, banks, services, insurance companies and other key
sectors of the economy under the democratic control of workers. No to neo-liberalism and the
free market, for a democratic, socialist, planned economy.
* Abolish feudalism, for progressive land reforms and voluntary collective farming, reduce the
prices of fertilizer, diesel, seeds and tractors by at least 50%.
* For a 12,000 rupee minimum wage, linked with inflation and a 35-hour working week.
* For a government of workers and peasants.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

BNP Members List Leaked!

Up until today I suppose BNP members were feeling quietly confident. Their conference in Blackpool last weekend certainly helped buoy up the party faithful, if comments on the official anodyne report is anything to go by. And in Boston last Thursday, the BNP won its first new councillor since the May elections, ending a dry run in what are still very favourable circumstances for the far right. So, if you were a BNP member, there were reasons to have a bit of a spring in your step. Until this morning.

Logging on to
Lancaster Unity earlier today, I saw the news that the BNP's entire membership list had been published online, in defiance of a court injunction. Unsurprisingly, despite the members list being up now for over 24 hours, it is only now the BNP have seen fit to comment on it.

In a news item billed as an 'urgent update' from Nick Griffin, he confirms the list's authenticity:

The vast majority of names and addresses on it [the membership list] are, however, from the November 2007 membership and skills list kept by a former head of administration of the party. This is the same list that was used to send via snail mail the bogus British Nationalist members’ bulletins last December and January. Detailed analysis by our membership department proves conclusively that the core list dates from between 30th November and 2nd December 2007. We have already sent formal demands to the web hosts to remove the list, pointing out to them that the fact that the publication of this year-old list constitutes Contempt of Court because a court order preventing its release or use was made and consented to by the group of disgraced former employees who first misappropriated it.
With an eye to several lapsed/resigned members remaining on the list, he adds "it is not normally our practice to either confirm or deny whether any individual is a member, in the case of any of those whose names have apparently been maliciously added to this list suffering any problems as a result we will gladly confirm their non-membership status." Thus in one stroke the fuhrer is able to write off the BNP's ludicrous over egging of the membership as the work of those nasty reds who have colluded in the release. 

Also, looking to any opportunity to fleece more money out of the more gullible BNP'ers, he says "we would recommend very strongly that anyone who believes this might become as issue for them joins the independent nationalist trade union Solidarity straight away. While leftist unions will turn their backs on - or even demand the persecution of - BNP members, Solidarity has already built up a great record of fighting and winning cases for its members." It would seem the BNP's "trade union" front has won a technical victory over moves to ban Adam Walker, the BNP supporting teacher who was sacked for using school computers for his fascist activities, from teaching, but it's going a bit far to say it has a "great record"!

Griffin goes on to predict that this is likely to benefit the BNP and afford it more publicity. Makes you wonder what planet he's on doesn't it?

It seems some fascists are aware of the gravity of the situation:

"There are some names on that list with an awful lot to lose who should have been (as expected) protected from this."

"Just glancing through one page, I noticed a couple of people who could find themselves having serious problems with their jobs, one a police officer the other said to work in a high position for a very left-wing council."

"This will run for quite a while. Anyone in the public sector should brace themselves for potential campaigns to out them and get them sacked or at least send to Coventry. Those members who were stupid enough to put business addresses should also be on guard for any protests etc."

Oh dear.

One would hope there's no hot heads out there stupid enough to "no platform" a BNP'er on their own doorstep, on account of this list, or bombard them with a barrage of hate mail. That would only play into the fascists' hands, especially as their propaganda tries to portray them as peace-loving patriots under attack by violently irrational anti-fascists. But this will certainly give many BNP members pause, particularly the softer layers, those who signed their children up under the family membership scheme and those whose employment could be jeopardised by being forced to come out of the closet. And there are those members who are furious that this could be leaked in the first place.

Griffin and his boneheaded lieutenants might think "crisis, what crisis?", but outside of the hardcore searching questions will be asked, criticisms raised, standing orders cancelled, and membership renewal requests going unfulfilled.

Just sit back and watch the fireworks.

Edited to add: If you're looking for the members list on Blogger, forget it. It was removed at some point overnight after the BNP lodged a complaint with Google. You might want to start looking elsewhere, such as Wikileaks.

Monday, 17 November 2008

The Ascent of Money

Ever published a book? Like the idea of those nice people at Channel 4 giving you a programme to plug your latest title? That's the gig Niall Ferguson has managed to land for The Ascent of Money. The first in a six part series aired earlier this evening, and is neutrally described as "the story of money and the rise of global finance. Bringing context and understanding to the current economic crisis, he reveals how the history of finance has been punctuated by gut-wrenching crashes. Each episode shows how a big bang in the ascent of money has changed the course of history." The blurb on his book is far less modest. It says "Niall Ferguson shows that finance is in fact the foundation of human progress. What’s more, he reveals financial history as the essential back-story behind all history."

It certainly sounds interesting. Shouldn't the series be something welcomed by Marxists? Isn't Ferguson confirming a basic tenet of historical materialism, that economics (the forces and relations of production), in the last instance, is the key driver of historical development? Not quite, as will soon become apparent.

The first episode, 'Dreams of Avarice', begins with the "bafflement" over the financial crisis and Ferguson asks if his series should be called The Descent of Money? The answer, unsurprisingly, is in the negative. Money has utterly dominated history and its hand can be felt behind technological breakthroughs, wars and revolutions. From ancient Mesopotamia to modern day London, in Ferguson's opinion the ascent of money is synonymous with the ascent of our species.

He takes us back to Peru under the Incan empire. Unlike most other class societies, Incan society had no concept of money. Its economy was directly based on labour and labour time - no medium stood in to represent it as was the case elsewhere. Therefore precious metals were prized for their aesthetic value, not as tokens. Therefore when it came into contact with Francisco Pizzaro and his conquistadors, they were perplexed by the Spanish thirst for gold and silver. But for Pizarro, it represented an opportunity. They secured Peru and the Incan lands for the Spanish crown, and systematically looted the empire of its gold, and used bonded labour to force many of the natives to work in the mines - particularly in what later became Bolivia.

Despite Spain's overseas possessions and seemingly inexhaustible reserves of precious metals, the empire went into sharp decline. Why? For Ferguson, all this was shipped back to Spain to help finance its wars of conquest in Europe. It didn't make Spain any more wealthy - instead it fuelled rampant inflation. What the conquistadors and the Spanish royals failed to appreciate was that money is essentially a promise, a bond of trust. Going further back into history to Babylonia, Ferguson argued money started off as clay tablets detailing a promise to pay for a good or service in exchange for a good or service. Over time these promises assumed monetary form, going through phases of precious metals, coin and bank notes. The character of trust symbolised in money changed from a promise to exchange a set amount of commodities to a trust in people and banks not to behave irresponsibly.

Ferguson then moves on to the development of credit, without which the modern world would have been impossible. The historical developments from around 1200 in Northern Italy are key here. Then the region was divided up into feuding city states with very little in the way of trust between them. Furthermore the development of trade was retarded by a continuing dependence on Roman numerals - a system that was cumbersome and overly complex when dealing with large sums. If that wasn't bad enough, there was no standardised currency. In Pisa, for example, several different systems of coin were in circulation. The Caliphate to Europe's south and east were much more advanced when it came to mathematics and trade. Then, for Ferguson, Leonardo Fibonacci of Pisa entered the stage of history. Fibonacci's father directed a trading post in what is present-day Algeria, which exposed the young Leonardo to the Hindu-Arabic numeral system, which was far simpler and concise than that burdening the Italian states. He spent years travelling around the south-eastern Mediterranean basin studying under the Arabian mathematicians of the day, and published his findings in the celebrated Liber Abaci - a book that made the case for Hindu-Arabian numerals, and was widely influential on European mercantilism - not least because the examples he used was taken from business (bookkeeping, interest calculation, etc.).

The infrastructure of numbers were in place by the mid 13th century that allowed for an expansion of lending. Traditionally, in Venice, it had been the preserve of the city state's ghettoised Jewish population. Scripture prevented Christians from charging interest on monies loaned (usury), a position enforced by the powerful medieval church. However, a theological technicality allowed Jewish money lenders to do so. Deuteronomy forbade the faithful from charging interest to one's "brother" - but Christians and Muslims were not counted as such. One could be a usurer provided it was they who were the customers. Therefore the religious animosity toward usury combined with biblical-inspired antipathy toward Jews to make the position of the money lender extremely undesirable.

How was this overcome? For Ferguson the sea change began with the emergence of banking, and in particular the rise of the Medici family in Florence. Initially a family of merchants with a less than flawless record (five Medicis were sentenced to death for various crimes and plots), they achieved wealth, power and respectability thanks to the role played by Giovani di Bicci de Medici in setting up the Medici bank. They were able to get around the rules on usury by dealing with foreign currency exchange - the bank charged a commission for undertaking the conversion. By building the bank up and diversifying its activities, it was able to whittle away at usury by recasting the terms. Loans became 'advances' that had 'commissions' to compensate for the risks the bank was taking. This was funded by allowing deposits to be made, which funded the loans. In return, savers received 'credit' as a reward for their investments (this credit, or interest, was typically well below the commission rates charged on advances).

In this way, modern banking was born. The Medicis reaped the benefits, becoming de facto rulers of Italy for a period, producing three popes and marrying into two royal families. Scale and diversification meant that went debtors defaulted on their loans, the spreading of risk meant there was less chance the bank would go under - but nevertheless the Medicis did suffer from bad debts, especially from aristocrats who thought nothing of taking out loans and not repaying them.

For Ferguson, the USA is the country par excellence that has demonstrated the benefits of this financial innovation the most - its success rests on borrowed money. As compared to European nations in the 19th century, who used to imprison defaulters, the process of US bankruptcy is comparatively painless. For example, if one files for chapter seven bankruptcy the property of the debtor is collected by an appointed trustee who auctions it off to pay the creditors. However, most US states allow the debtor to keep essential property. Chapter 13 bankruptcy allows for a rescheduling of debt repayments against projected future earnings. This ability to emerge relatively unscathed is key to the success of American capitalism: it encourages entrepreneurship, and he cites the careers of Mark Twain, Buster Keaton and Henry Ford as former bankrupts made good.

Summing up the first episode, Ferguson argues that lenders should not be seen as parasites or leeches, but as providers of an essential service. But if the banks are the answer to the problems posed by finance, why are we now suffering from a collapse in confidence in the banking system? That question, which is tied to bond markets, is the subject of next week's episode.

There's no doubting Ferguson's ability to make a topic usually the preserve of dry economics text books interesting. But, if you would forgive the pun, there are a couple of reasons why this history of money should not be taken as good coin.

There is the money question itself. As we have seen, Ferguson argues money originated as a bond of trust, as a promise by the buyer to pay the seller a given quantity of goods in exchanged for their purchase(s). Indeed this is the case, but there's more going on beneath trust that Ferguson allows for. Karl Marx argued that all commodities embody greater or lesser amounts of labour time. i.e. Some things take longer to make than others. Therefore in an economy based on barter, the value of one commodity can be expressed in a given quantity or portion of another commodity. When promises of payment emerged as either clay tablets, sea shells, gem stones, precious metals, etc. their function as standing in for payment developed into the means of payment. They became the universal equivalent against which all commodities, as expressions of abstract labour time, could be measured.

The second problem is Ferguson's treatment of capitalism. Or rather, his non-treatment of it. By focusing entirely on the history of finance he abstracts it from their contexts. For example, we are led to believe there is no real difference between the capitalism of today and the mercantile activities of 13th century Northern Italy. Taken at face value, it results in a naturalisation of capitalism, a presumption that the mode of production in which we live now is as old as humankind itself. For example, it is true the Medici innovations can be found in modern day banking, but the mode of production in which they were operating was very different.

In this period, the European economy was based on the feudal system whereby peasants were bonded to the land and forced to labour for a period of time for the land owners. This could take place either as set quantities of grain farmed from the peasant's plot and handed over as tax, or as a set number of days labouring in the lord's fields. If after fulfilling this obligation and attending to the household's needs there was a surplus, the peasantry could sell it on the local markets. Monies made would then be spent on replacing tools, buying livestock, purchasing clothes, etc. The landowners would spend the money realised from the forced surplus labour of the peasants on furnishing their retinue, their castles, objects of (aristocratic) conspicuous consumption, currying royal favour, and so on. Peasants had no economic self interest outside of their immediate needs and their antagonistic relationship to the feudal land owners. Similarly the baronial class had an interest in maintaining these relations of production, but not increasing the productivity of the peasants in their charge. As far as feudalism was concerned, markets were ancillary to its core relationships.

The merchant class of the Italian city states grew up around these markets. Their fortunes were made by purchasing surpluses of this kind and trading it with other city states and empires around the Mediterranean. This activity demanded certain outlays, which was where the money lenders and later, the Medici bank came in. But the sums advanced realised interest off the back of trade profits, or booty from conquest and plunder. Capital accumulation as we understand it now was not sustained as profits went into pursuing dynastic intrigues, funding armies and navies, and patronising the arts. There was no production for profit and accumulation of capital for its own sake. There was no labour market and waged labour, if it did exist, was rare and marginal. In short, no capitalism, despite the superficial differences between the medieval and modern finance systems.

In addition to ignoring the discontinuities between capitalist trade and trade in feudal social formations, Ferguson is guilty of what Ellen Meiksins Wood calls a 'Neo-Smithian' interpretation of history. For Adam Smith, capitalism was an expression of our natural state of being. What Wood argues against (principally against other Marxists, sometimes including Marx himself, as well as the famous German sociologist, Max Weber) is approaching history as if capitalism is a system waiting in the wings to emerge onto the historical stage - provided the conditions are right, instead of treating it as a highly specific mode of production that was born out of a particular conjuncture of feudal crisis and class struggles. Ferguson is certainly guilty of this, suggesting that the law of usury was holding finance, and by extension, capitalism, back from its free development - an argument paralleling some of those made in Weber's otherwise seminal The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

Perhaps it's too early to make these criticisms of Ferguson's series. After all only one episode has aired and there are still five parts to go. If it is anything like the book, these will deal with previous crises (including the South Sea Bubble), the development of bonds and securities, the colonial globalisation of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the financial roots of wars and revolutions, the present crisis, and what we can learn from this history. All interesting material, but unfortunately a very one-sided and distorted view of the real history fomenting beneath the financial froth.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

"Remixes"

Regular readers are aware I do like to inflict my music taste upon them from time to time. And why not? Comrades should have the option to have a boogie while digesting my musings on Obama, Marxism, Sexuality and suchlike.

I'm not backward about being forward with my musical opinions either, and I'm afraid there's something that has really got my goat, musically speaking, in 2008, and that would be the rise of "remixed" re-releases.

As a general rule, and forgetting for a moment the music business is, well, a business, a cover or remix should bring something to the track that's being covered. For example, see Britney Spears' (You Drive Me) Crazy here. Compare it with the cover by obscure kid metal outfit, SugarComa:



Superb.

(Fact fans - until Ken MacLeod started commenting on this blog, my biggest claim to fame was receiving an email from Sugarcoma's drummer).

SugarComa's is an (unintentionally hilarious) example of how a track should be re-imagined. It's a pity this is lost on much contemporary dance music. Take for instance the original vocal mix of Toca's Miracle by Fragma and the 2008 "remix". Where's the difference? See Alex Party's dancefloor monster from the mid 90s? What does the 2008 version bring, aside from a tacky video?

It seems no one can escape it, not even Sash!, who was responsible for some of the best mid-90s floor fillers. His latest single, Raindrops is practically unlistenable because of the way it's been draped around the skeleton of Encore Une Fois. Terrible!

Anyway, I'm glad that's off my chest now. Intent on leaving you on a high note (literally), here's Blue Ray feat. comrade Jimmy Sommerville. Try not to laugh at the video, this ocean of flesh is supposed to be a serious arty piece!

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Branch Meeting: Bolivia and Revolution

At tonight's branch meeting, Brother G presented his debut lead off. As our resident Bolivia specialist and attendee of the session on that country at last weekend's Socialism, it was only right and proper he did something on the unfolding events in Bolivia.

He began right back at the beginning, at the proclamation of the Bolivian state itself in 1825.
Simón Bolívar, Bolivia's first president and the leading figure in the Latin American wars of independence in the early 19th century from Spain, saw himself as a liberal in the American (as opposed to French) revolutionary tradition. Nevertheless, though the anti-colonial struggle was a step forward it was business as usual for the majority of the population. Recognised citizens of the Bolivian republic made up only 2.5 per cent of the total population, and this of course coincided with the European elite who (apart from 1952) have only recently had their monopoly on power seriously challenged. Bolivia is also unique among Latin America for managing to keep the majority of its indigenous population, mainly because the African slaves the Spanish shipped over we found to be unsuited to labour in the country's climate and altitude. In effect the country's geography saved the indigenous from genocide, and they now (depending on who you believe) account for between 55 and 70 per cent of Bolivia's population.

Bolivia has historically been a byword for political turbulence on a continent known for political turbulence. But also it has been the nation most heavily pregnant with revolution. After independence, the disenfranchised indigenous peoples were enserfed on the land and worked in mineral extraction in conditions that were little better than forced labour. There were no opportunities for them outside of this lot. They were used as cannon fodder in Bolivia's unsuccessful war against Paraguay in 1932-5. This was to prove something of a turning point in their history. In total 100,000 people perished in a fruitless struggle, but their anger and frustration found political expression in the Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (
MNR). This left wing party was founded in 1941 and rapidly spread its influence among the trade unions - particularly the strategically vital mining sector. Over 1946-52 the MNR developed militias and participated in the round of coups, insurrections, rebellion and a general strike as part of its struggle against a succession of authoritarian governments. In 1952 the MNR finally seized power after overrunning the armed forces, and embarked on an ambitious programme of nationalisations and agrarian reform. But it could have been more. In G's opinion this was the nearest a country had come to socialist revolution since 1917, but owing to mistakes on the part of revolutionaries active in the movement the leadership were able to centralise power in its hands, and an opportunity was lost. The MNR carried on in power until they were overthrown by the military in 1964, ushering in a period of dictatorship and a rolling back of progressive reforms.

This turbulent period was not enough to break the miners and the socialist movement though. The restoration of liberal democracy in 1982 coincided with a roll out of a neoliberal programme that saw Western multinationals come in and take half ownership of public utilities and state infrastructure. There were a number of important disputes during this period, but things came to a head between 2000-5 over the privatisation of
water (where residents were forbidden from even collecting rain water!) and the Gas War. This was the background for the rise of the Movement for Socialism and Evo Morales (pictured), who won the presidency in 2005 with 54 per cent of the popular vote. The renationalisation of the hydro carbons sector of the economy plus an 85 per cent rate of corporation tax has allowed the Morales administration to pursue poverty reduction strategies (already down 15 per cent) and make major inroads into illiteracy.

But there are major problems in Bolivia. The right have moved heaven and earth to oppose the Morales agenda, which has assumed constitutional expression in a movement for autonomy in Bolivia's richest provinces. This has occasionally erupted into naked violence, but civil war has only been averted by (so far) by grass roots mobilisations. Nevertheless the right suffered a set back when its inspired recall referendum saw popular support for Morales increase from 54 to 68 per cent. Some of his opponents in the provincial governors offices were voted out, though they do not recognise the legality of the referendum. And also the Senate does not have a majority for the MAS and its allies. In short, the situation is on a knife's edge. Bolivia could go either way - forward to the revolution, or into the hell of counterrevolution. But the popular support for the MAS and Morales programme is there - will it encourage him to act more boldly?

In the ensuing discussion, A noted that there have been many such knife's edge situations in Latin America in the past. For example, in Nicaragua the
Sandinistas held power for 11 years, nationalised 50 per cent of the economy and fought US-backed counterrevolution, but in 1990 reaction came to power constitutionally. In Chile, Allende's Popular Unity government also sought to incrementally advance socialism, which ended in violence. To avoid a similar fate, be it a peaceful electoral defeat or a bloody coup, Morales has to take decisive action. At present the masses are certainly behind the government, including widespread support in the regions seeking autonomy (on average, approval for Morales here was 40 per cent). Morales is still committed to land redistribution - the MAS-sponsored constitution puts limits on the amount of land that can be held, which will go to referendum in January and is likely to pass (five million hectares are currently owned by two million peasants, whereas 25 million is owned by just 100 families - it is under the latter where the majority of gas reserves are to be found).

Some comrades also flagged up what an Obama victory can mean for Bolivia. The election was enthusiastically welcomed by masses of peasants and workers who, like many others, take his change rhetoric at face value. However, his comments on energy independence from the Middle East might indicate an eyeing up of Latin America and moves to secure energy sources once sufficient disengagement from the Arab world has taken place. There was also some discussion about the agrarian question - how to reconcile the desire to redistribute the land with the need to socialise agricultural production and democratically plan it? The former would certainly appeal to peasant consciousness from the most advanced to most backward than slogans around socialisation, but they need not be mutually exclusive - to be successful it would have to proceed on a voluntary basis, and the state could play a role in incentivising cooperatives.

In summing up, it was felt that the situation in Bolivia is more favourable from the standpoint of socialist politics than even Venezuela. There is a strong tradition of trade unionism, independent working class organisation, and is one of the few places where Trotskyism had a mass influence and struck deep roots among our class. A leadership and programme that links together the various Bolivian social movements to self-defence militias, fraternisation with the armed forces and workers' councils is what the situation demands. Already the Bolivian trade union federation, the
COB support many of these and related demands, so there is every chance a revolutionary party organic to the movement of peasants and workers could emerge.

As Bolivia is probably the country closest to socialist revolution, and demands the attention of our movement, wherever we are.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Understanding Obama

What can we expect from an Obama administration? What does his victory mean for US politics? How is it going to affect the rest of the world? These are some of the questions a number of Keele American politics experts attempted to answer at tonight's mini symposium on Obama's historic election victory.

Mike Tappin came first to soften the audience up with some factoids and stats. Because of the 22nd Amendment, the Oval Office was open; the last two years of Bush's presidency had been affected by divided government, and Dick Cheney was the first vice president not to seek the party nomination for president since 1928. The Republicans tried to make hay with Obama's lack of "experience" (while conveniently overlooking the incompetence of their own vice presidential nominee), but in Tappin's opinion the meat grinder of the primaries and the election battle are enough to test the qualities of any candidate. We also saw the GOP try to benefit from the animus Hillary Clinton supporters felt toward Obama via Sarah Palin's selection, but the division, such as it existed, wasn't decisive. Hillary put on a good show of being reconciled, appearing some 72 times during Obama's campaign. Bitter old Bill managed it once, and that was on the final day.

Undoubtedly the
Democrats benefited from being in chime with the popular political agenda. At a time when economy was the burning issue for the majority of Americans, Obama looked calm and spoke a language that chimed with most, while the McCain camp were wallowing the gutter with red baiting, guilt-by-association attacks, and clueless responses to events.

At 62.5 per cent, this was the highest turn out for a presidential election since 1908. As nearly everyone has seen, 95 per cent of black voters supported Obama (up seven per cent from Kerry's result, and African-Americans now count for 13 per cent of the population - up from 10 in 1980), as did two thirds of Hispanic Americans. Men overall (just) preferred McCain to Obama (49 to 48), though there was decisive support for the Democrats among women (56 to 43). Much has been made of Obama's failure to win over white men, but here the story isn't as bad as one might suppose. It is true the 30-44, 45-65, 66+ age groups polled 41, 42 and 40 per cent for Obama respectively, but the 18-29s backed him to the tune of 54 per cent. A shape of things to come? Maybe. The first time voter pool scored 69 to 30 per cent for Obama. In addition, of the 63 per cent who reported the economy was their primary issue, 80 per cent went for Obama, a point that underlies the strategic hopelessness of McCain's team. Still, the Republicans can find succour in their (largely) undiminished base. 54 per cent of Protestants recorded a preference for McCain, as did 74 per cent of Evangelicals (fundamentalists to you and me).

In conclusion, what can be said about this election? Tappin hedged his bets and said it was too early to say. There may be signs of demographic shifts in the Democrats favour, particularly the declining proportion of whites ( 1980 - 88 per cent, 2008 - 74 per cent) combined with Obama's support among the young, but nothing suggestive of a definite conclusion. The smart money however is on the incoming administration serving the full two terms, unless it is seriously thrown off the tracks by events.

Chris Bailey wanted to look into the demographics a bit further. Change was the watchword of Obama's campaign, so much so that McCain was forced to ape the rhetoric. But does it mean anything? Does it signify a change in American race relations? Has there been a shift in the patterns of partisanship? And doe it mean an eclipsing of conservatism?

Firstly on race, is there evidence of profound demographic changes? In his concessionary speech, McCain heralded the result as "historic" and held "special significance" for African-Americans. Indeed, some 33 per cent of Americans hail it as the single most important advance for civil rights since the abolition of slavery. For another 34 per cent it is in the top three events. But with all the talk of this being a watershed moment, we have to ask if there's any evidence of advances for African-Americans lower down the government. In 2007-8, there were 650 elected officials at state level, only two governors, and one senator ... who's just about to enter the White House. So an Obama presidency, though welcome from the standpoint of civil rights, can mask the work that still needs to be done. That said, there is evidence racism is becoming less of a factor in mainstream politics. Of the state-level representatives, the number of African-Americans representing all white or majority white constituencies has increased from 91 in 2001 to 189 in 2007. In addition, several African-American congressmen were elected in a similar fashion.

Accepting that racial dynamics are changing, are we seeing the beginning of a new demographic majority that will favour the Democrats? Well, Obama is the first northern urban president to have been elected since John F. Kennedy, but the result is by no means a landslide, especially when compared with Ronald Reagan's 1984
triumph (58.8 to 40.6 per cent, compared to Obama's 52.7 to 46.0 per cent). Nevertheless, we have seen that (so far) the Democrats are appealing more to the young than their opponents and have started to make serious inroads into the sorts of suburban areas that have piled up votes for the Republicans in the past.

So much for the Democrats. What does it mean for the GOP and conservatism? We must remember US conservatism is not a monolithic bloc but rather a coalition of different constituencies and interests, and this is a coalition less than impressed with the performance of George W. Bush - in fact he has been more or less disowned by its ideologues. He has presided over a tenfold increase in the national debt ($1 trillion to $10 trillion in eight years!), an introduction of 7,000(!) new regulations, and increase in federal government employment and an expansion of
Medicare - and this was before the measures demanded by the economic crisis! Bush has never eschewed the Reaganite small government rhetoric but his record sits uneasily with the ideology that dribbles from his mouth. This shows Reaganism as a governing principle has long been on its way out, a trend underlined by a slight majority of Americans reporting they were in favour of the government "doing more". Nevertheless, the so-called "values people" (the religious right, fundamentalist activists, etc.) won't be going away, and results from referendums they force on states around issues of gay marriage and abortion don't indicate movement from conservative values.

Whatever happens to the right, at least you could say about Bush and his cronies was that they stood for something, even if it was reaction and imperialism. Obama however appears to have no ideology. He may have a fairly liberal voting
record in the Senate, but there's no guiding thread or philosophy, as yet. In fact Obama is keen to portray himself as a "post-partisan" figure, which in practice will be no different from Bill Clinton's administration. Pragmatism will be the order of the day. So, Change? Perhaps ... but don't hold your breath, concluded Bailey.

John Parker decided to take on one myth that has emerged from the campaign - that the media was biased in Obama's favour. Is there any truth in this? Amazingly, there is a popular tacit belief that professional journalism should be neutral when it comes to politics, which is perhaps why Fox News, without any shame, claims to be 'fair and balanced'. Despite this 39 per cent of Americans agree their media has a liberal bias, while 20 per cent think it leans toward conservatism. Looking specifically at Fox, 31 per cent thought it had a conservative bias and 15 per cent thought it was liberal! This idea of liberal bias is a common meme on the right, but it's worth noting the Republicans only wheel it out if they're under fire, or their candidate is losing. McCain, Palin and their hangers on might be moaning about it, but Dubya never complained!

Having performed content analysis of the press between July and mid-October, Obama received 38 per cent more coverage between July and August. 31 per cent were negative, compared to 33 per cent bad press for McCain. No significant difference there then. But the gap widened between September and October 16th. Obama's press was 36 per cent favourable, 29 per cent negative. But for McCain only 14 per cent was favourable, 57 per cent negative. So the media was biased, right? Why did McCain attract hostile comment? Partly it was due to the Republican's campaigning strategy - without a doubt McCain's suspension of his campaign to head back to Washington to deal with the economic crisis just made him look ineffective, especially as it was his Republican colleagues that voted down the $700 billion rescue package. But that can only go so far.

For Parker, the "bias", generally speaking, is in fact a structural feature of media coverage and not its preference for a given candidate. Its coverage tends to treat the presidential election as a horse race - they look at who's in the leads in the polls and they ask why that is the case. The same is true of their opponent, who is lagging behind. 53 per cent of media comment falls into this category. As McCain was trailing, it therefore follows that the majority of news stories about this would be negative. It didn't really matter what else the candidates did - policy issues encompassed 20 per cent of coverage, advertising and spending 10 per cent, and personal stories just five per cent.

Looking at the break down for each candidate, 57 per cent on polls, 77 per cent on strategy, 36 per cent on economy and 44 per cent on McCain's suspension of coverage on each of these issues were positive for Obama. For McCain, the numbers respectively were 14, 10, 15 and 11 per cent. Factoring in the horse race effect and the Republican's strategic ineptitude (
wardrobe gate anyone?), this is not so much an instance of bias, more a case of following the issues. If you're winning, the media are favourable toward you. If not, they will attack. For Parker, this has shown to be the case consistently across all modern presidential campaigns. It respects no party labels.

The final contribution of the evening came from
Jon Herbert. His task was to sketch out what we could reasonably expect from an Obama presidency, and turned to an influential model of predicting policy change. According to Paul C. Light in his 1999 book, The President's Agenda, he argues the implementation of a policy agenda depends on the amount of 'presidential capital' a successful candidate has managed to accumulate. This is calculated from the level of party support, public approval (and margin of victory), and reputation. Taken in turn, Obama's support among the Democrats is good and far greater than that enjoyed by McCain. His margin of victory wasn't particularly spectacular, but he has a good reputation in popular consciousness and among the media. So the constraints on an Obama presidency are not particularly great. But then again, has he really got a mandate for his (empty) 'change' agenda? Perhaps, but only in certain areas. According to polls, the numbers who said the economy was their number one concern has grown from 15-18 per cent in mid-2007 to some 60 per cent. There's more wiggle room for bold initiatives here than say health care or energy independence.

That said, there are a number of constraints Obama will have to manage. There is what Herbert calls the 'unleash effect' of Democratic congress members seeing the presidency as an opportunity to get their pet policies through, such as updating the benefits system, expanding health care, etc. There may come a time when this section of the party will be able to extract concessions from Obama in return for support for his policies. But also there's a new factor Obama's strategic management will have to take into account: the so-called "netroots". This is the (mainly young, mainly first-time voting) constituency his campaign was able to mobilise. They are at once the most enthusiastic and most demanding, and are least aware of the constraints bearing down on the presidency. The netroots are also the incoming administration's biggest potential headache. Disillusionment and criticism, if it sets in, will be rapidly disseminated among the media networks (forums, blogs, social networking) that have been built up. Democrat strategists are also aware their support will be most crucial for securing the second term, and to this end are going to keep the paths of communication the campaign built up open. If that wasn't enough, Obama must keep the Congress and Senate Democrat leaderships onside and head off opposition that may come from the more conservative sections of the party.

What about Obama's philosophy? As we have seen there's very little that can pin him down. The Senate voting record is liberal-leaning but has shown his pragmatic colours. For example, he has a paper position of public financing of election campaigns, but abandoned it as soon as the private monies started flowing into his. He has made noises about reducing the dependence on fossil fuels, and then forgot it when the Republicans started running with off-shore drilling. But he has been consistent on class, albeit his constant evoking of America's middle class. His is a narrative that has median income earners as the most short-changed by Bush's administration in all sorts of ways. He strikes a populist pose by championing "Main Street" over Wall Street. But that's as far as it goes.

Obama has already indicated his desire to be a post-partisan figure, but will there be opportunities? Notwithstanding the split in the Democrats between conservatives and liberals, there seems to be little mileage in overcoming this by reaching out to moderate Republicans as this has become something of an oxymoron of late. The march of the right in American society has seen centre-right conservatives increasingly squeezed out by the ideologues (imagine your David Camerons and George Osbornes replaced by the
John Redwoods and Nadine Dorries). Bipartisan action might be possible in the face of crisis, as a winning over of sufficient Republicans to pass the $700 billion bail out second time round showed, or on matters of mutual interest such as energy independence. The same is true of the military budget (Obama plans to maintain Bush's level of spending). But if Obama is going to tackle health care, then he faces a protracted struggle - especially as the Republicans appear to be well prepared to launch a media offensive against any such moves.

Foreign policy-wise, it's worth noting that Bush's clumsy unilateralism was merely an extension of trends in Clinton's approach to international relations. Like many at home, there's plenty of people outside of the United States who've projected their own hopes on to Obama. But there will be temptations for him to go it alone, as seems likely with his stated intention of having to deal with the tribal groupings in Pakistan's frontier province who are sheltering and supporting the remnants of Al Qaida and the Taliban. It seems the command staff put in place by Bush, particularly General David Petraeus and Admiral Michael Mullen agree with Obama on this. But where they vehemently disagree is on a timetable of withdrawal from Iraq. Furthermore they simply cannot be moved aside by Obama place men - he is stuck with them. the ingredients are there for a high profile conflict - it remains to be seen whether the incoming administration accede to their position on Iraq or somehow out manoeuvres them.

These are some of the difficulties and opportunities facing the 44th president. For those of us concerned with advancing socialist politics in the USA, there could be considerable opportunities around the "netroots" movement that put Obama into office. I have (briefly)
discussed the possibility that millions of people activated by Obama's candidacy could start channelling their energies into other movements. Also, if the Democrats are taking the problem of disillusionment among this constituency seriously, so should we. Obama may have promised little but the huge amount of expectation in him is bound to enter into crisis at some point. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, could start casting around for an alternative, and we have to be ready if this comes to fruition.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Socialism 2008: Rally




Saturday night at Socialism is probably the biggest night of the year for the Socialist Party. Speakers are drawn from the four corners of the CWI to address the hundreds of comrades present. It was difficult for me to make a decent estimate of numbers, but somewhere between 500 and 600 is probably right. And there were clearly more attendees this year than last - a sign that Stoke branch is not the only one enjoying a growth spurt.

I was going to write a lengthy report on who said what, but there seems little point now the
official version has appeared. And even better each of the speeches were filmed, which you can view on the same page too.

As ever, the rally ended in the traditional way with a rousing rendition of the
proper version of The Internationale. Depressingly, nearly all the English language versions on Youtube are reproductions of the sacrilegious Billy Bragg version. So could we please, please film it next year and post it up?

Edited to add: More videos here, this time from the CNWP rally that closed the weekend. (Hat tip to The Revolution Decides).