Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Trade Union Round Up

First some good news. Rob Williams, convenor for Linamar in Swansea (ex-Visteon) was unceremoniously sacked yesterday by management, on the grounds of an "irretrievable breakdown of trust." Immediately Rob occupied his office and the day shift workers walked off the job. Once the workers surrounded the building preventing police attempts to remove Rob, the bosses were forced to back down. Rob has now been reinstated but is now suspended, with more negotiations to take place next Wednesday. So while the opening engagement with management was successful, the battle is far from over. Messages of support can be sent to rwilliams 'at' linamar.com or robbo 'at' redwills.freeserve.co.uk. Protests to linda.hasenfratz 'at' linamar.com

Management's move comes after the role Rob has played in solidarity actions with the workplace occupations by Visteon workers. It is no accident. The use of occupations by these threatened workers must be playing on management's mind, especially as they seek to push through redundancies. By going for Rob they have attempted (so far unsuccessfully) to attack a prominent representative of this fledgling movement. (More available on the Socialist Party's website
here, and supporting pieces at Socialist Worker and Socialist Unity.)

While we're on the subject of Socialist Unity, Andy has flagged up the forthcoming election in the building workers' union,
UCATT. As he outlines in his post, what's at stake is a struggle between Alan Ritchie, an apparatus man who has not even worked on a building site and whose tenancy has seen the union practically run into the ground. He is being challenged for the general secretary's position by the left-winger Michael Dooley, a full timer who favours a fighting strategy for rebuilding the union and strengthening the hand of workers in what still are among Britain's most dangerous workplaces. News of the state of play in the builders' union can be found here. The election of Michael Dooley is in the interests of anyone who wants to see the labour movement thrive.

Finally and on a lighter note,
Wolverhampton TUC, one of the growing number of trades councils known for consistent campaigning is holding its annual May Day shindig on Friday night.

Details are:

Friday 1st May 2009 doors open 7pm - speakers, entertainment, music, food, bouncy castle and stalls

venue Pegasus Function Room, Craddock Street WV6 0QQ ring 07932 797139 to book stalls

The Heart of England Jazz Band confirmed to headline plus Transit Trix breakdancers and the Jockey Morris Men.

Matthew Collins from Searchlight, Brenda Proctor Women Against Pit Closures '25 years after the Miners Strike' and Indian Workers Association to speak. A local sacked CWU shop steward will also address the crowd.

If that wasn't enough, Birmingham Trades Council (website currently unavailable) is hosting its May event the following day. Details are:

2009 INTERNATIONAL WORKERS’ DAY

Saturday 2nd May 1- 5pm

Transport and General Workers Union (Unite) Centre

11 Broad Street Birmingham B15 1AY

Workers Rights

Locally, Nationally & Internationally

This year’s theme has been prompted by the economic situation and the hierarchy of victims created by the media and mainstream politics

Speakers: Jeremy Dear – NUJ General Secretary, Kevin Nolan - Unite Convenor at Visteon, Carolyn Jones – Institute of Employment Rights, Clare Short MP and also speakers on Local Disputes, Asylum Seekers, Migrant Workers, Palestine and Ireland

Followed by: Workshop on the European Union led by Dave Nellist

Music by The Clarion Singers

Plus Stalls ~ Food ~ Crèche

Trade Unions and progressive campaign groups are invited to have a stall. Please send £10 for a stall and any donation to support the event to: BTUC 54 Allison St B5 5TH

Contact: Mary Pearson - 0121 773 8683 or Mob: 0797 017 4167, email to Mary 'at' sparkle123.freeserve.co.uk or marypearson123 'at' btinternet.com

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Swine Flu and Press Responsibility

We're all going to die! That's the verdict the British press has reached. The news some 150 people in Mexico have died of swine flu - a relative of the H5N1 bird flu that exercised the media a year or so ago - and its spread to North America and Europe has sent newsrooms around the country into a tizzy. And not a few people too. According to the Daily Mail, there has been a surge in sales of Tamiflu as people panic buy up available stocks. Unfortunately swine flu is the new kid on the viral block and it will take some time before custom-made treatments are available, by which time either the pandemic has swept through and/or the media are whipping the public up into a frenzy about something else.

The situation with swine flu
is potentially serious. Some commentary doing the rounds on the blogs and forums draw attention to the 2,000 or so a day who succumb to Malaria, which hardly ever draws media notice outside of special features. But to use this fact to dismiss swine flu as just a media driven panic is mistaken. Malaria is hemmed in by climate: swine flu is not. Given its virulence and despite the relatively slight number of fatalities it is only right and proper the authorities are taking the relevant precautions. In this case it is much better to be safe than sorry, especially as the current spread has caused the World Health Organisation to raise its alert level to four, the level of sustained human-to-human transmission.

Nevertheless there is a stirring of a panic and the British media are doing their damnedest to encourage it, purely for reasons of market share and profit. In newsrooms cut to the bone by capricious and unaccountable media bosses swine flu is mana from heaven. Journalists only need sign up to the relevant government and medical agency feeds and spin what's coming out of them. The result is dramatic and sexy headlines and a very short term rise in circulation at little or no extra cost to the papers themselves.

This comes at the price of a sober analysis of the facts. But far worse is the abdication of social responsibility, of which the British press has a long and inglorious history. The most infamous probably remains
News of the World's campaign of naming and shaming convicted paedophiles. This saw several innocent people attacked by vigilantes because their names happened to be the same or similar to those published by Murdoch's odious rag. In one case even a paediatrician's premises were vandalised by a mob whipped up by NOTW.

Its reporting of swine flu certainly falls into this category. Sensationalist reporting is likely to see tamiflu wiped off Britain's shelves and encourage an influx of needlessly worried people into doctors' surgeries - wasting time and resources already rationed thanks to the marketisation imposed on the NHS by the government. But whatever happens the media barons will wash their hands of the consequences.


Unfortunately this kind of irresponsible reportage is hardwired into all media organisations to one degree or another. As private enterprises they have no choice but to compete for advertising revenue and readership/audiences - otherwise they will go under. In theory this competition should drive up standards (how many times have we heard that mantra?). But in reality it generates structural pressures to dumb down and sensationalise. To get away from this the media's big institutions need completely restructuring, and the starting point should be taking them out of private ownership.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Here Come the Bolsheviks

Every time the mighty International Bolshevik Tendency merits a mention on the UK Left Network or Leftist Trainspotters discussion forums, I feel compelled to comment. I cannot help myself. Micro groups like the IBT are just so, well ... charming.

In far left circles I suppose the publication of the IBT's infrequent journal,
1917 is something of an event: they are probably the only Leninist group whose chief publication only comes out twice a year. Presumably this is because their cadres are buried deep within the labour movement organising our class and seeing off the influence of other ostensibly revolutionary organisations. But you wouldn't know it from the latest 1917, which has just hit the interweb. There's lashings and lashings of sectarian boilerplate on offer but zero information about IBT activities. Even the one piece dedicated to this - a report of their world congress that took place in April last year(!) - spends the bulk of the article attacking other Trotskyists!

Almost without exception the ultra left vent their spleens about their ever-so-correct revolutionary programmes and lecture those groups - principally the
SP and SWP - who actively try to win a mass audience for socialist politics.

The Leninism the IBT and their ilk claim the mantle of is an
activist philosophy. The point cannot be clearer: the building of revolutionary socialist parties demands disciplined political action. But this theory is divorced from their practice, which is no different from the behaviour lefty students get up to in the seminar room. This is all one can do if you hold ra-ra-revolutionary views. Because reality doesn't match up to their perspectives, scholasticism and denunciation of other lefts sort of makes sense. Their perspectives cannot act as a guide to interventions in the class struggle, so best leave well alone.

The sociological conundrum for me is how this sort of "activism" not only sustains the commitment of a very small group of cadre, but can also appear
attractive to a certain species of leftist. I suppose it's this question - the enigma of ultra left existence - that lies at the root of the fascination.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

No2EU Update

Earlier today a group of comrades got together to plan the work for the No2EU campaign in North Staffs. It was also a welcome opportunity to share news about the campaign.

First things first; the lists. Thankfully, at long last, all candidates have been selected. Some comrades will have picked up rumours of who's standing at
this thread on Socialist Unity and via this muckraking piece in the Weekly Worker. I'm afraid comrades are going to have to wait a little while longer for official announcements ... but not too long! 1st May is when the lists will be made public.

No2EU will be contesting all 11 European constituencies, which is the first time a left-of-
Labour challenge has managed to do so. The coalition will qualify for a free election broadcast and mail shot. But all this costs money and donations are urgently needed, so please rush your cheques/postal orders/used fivers to No2EU, 39 Chalton Street, London NW1 1JD. Cheques payable to 'No2EU - Yes to Democracy'.

On a Stoke-level we've got a huge job of work ahead of us. We have organised two public meetings - 8th May and 1st June (venues tbc). We will also be doing No2EU stalls (first one next Saturday at 10am in Hanley) and organising leaflet drops all over the county.

Our No2EU group enters this campaign with a core group of
Socialist Party, Communist Party and independent activists, but we need more local comrades to step up to the plate. Remember, the BNP's chances have been talked up by the Labour party to try and mobilise what remains of its activist base. No2EU however is the only radical alternative poised to take votes from away from them. No2EU offers a more positive and political means of lessening the fascists' chances in the West Midlands and the North West than the hoary old 'don't vote Nazi' or 'vote hope, not hate'-type campaigning.

If you are in Staffordshire and want to get involved drop me a line at my email via my
profile. Don't forget to remove the NOSPAM! But elsewhere No2EU isn't beating volunteers off with a stick! Either give the office a bell at 0207 529 8824 or drop the campaign an email via info@no2eu.com

Sunday edit: As pointed out in the comments, Iain at Leftwing Criminologist carries an article by the SP's Hannah Sell on why we are supporting No2EU. You can read it here.

Friday, 24 April 2009

John Stuart Mill's Debating Ethics

In light of Smeargate and the recent discussion on the centre left about progressive blogging values, an examination of what John Stuart Mill has to say about the ethics of debate is timely. 'Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion' in On Liberty strikes the reader with Mill's zealous advocacy for unimpeded argument. He even went so far as to state the interference of the government or 'the majority' in the development of public discussion is simultaneously an attack on the wider interests of our species. He says:
... the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that is is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error (1929, p.20).
For Mill there are two reasons why the suppression of democratic discussion takes place. The first is obvious: that the suppressed ideas are true and act against established interests. The second is the suppressors believe their position is absolute and unassailable - so why bother letting other arguments exist when they're superfluous? Whatever the motives of suppression are, the effects are the same: both prevent others from judging the veracity of that argument. But what about the prevention of argument on the basis that some ideas are dangerous and pernicious? This, for example, is a position many anti-fascists adopt in their no-platform strategy. Mill's response is:
Complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action; and no other terms can a being with human faculties have any rational assurance of being right (p.23).
This might resemble an idealist argument but the formation, exchange and clash of ideas does not exist outside of material existence for Mill. Rather, argument is all about the interpretation of experience. And for Mill, this is the only road to fact. It logically follows collecting and engaging with other bodies of opinion is a rigorous means of correcting one's own, which has the effect of investing that position with confidence. Mill suggests that once all other arguments have been taken into account, one can justifiably place one's judgment above others. Taking my own position in the field of academic sociology, for example, because I have read and engaged with a broad range of literature across several topics I have enough legitimacy to believe the positions I hold are superior to those I disagree with. But to transpose this position onto other sociological topics without getting to know it thoroughly, this justification disappears. Plus arguing about them runs the risk of making myself look an ass.

What about opinions or ideas that are useful from the standpoint of the common good? Are they sacrosanct? For instance, on the left there remains a view that we shouldn't criticise x, y and z sacred cows because we would be giving succour to our enemies. Therefore things are often better left unsaid. Mill however would argue that the usefulness of silence is itself a matter of opinion and is open to contest as much as anything else. This is because to prove received opinion(s) wrong and make the new truth widely available is as important a thing as one can do. When an idea is persecuted and repressed it can take a long time for the truth to work its way out, reaking damage on those who suppressed it in the first place. Krushchev's revelations that the USSR under Stalin was never sweetness and light damaged the Communist Party in this country - who had a long record of pretending the opposite - and strengthened the liberal democratic tropes of anti-Soviet cold war rhetoric.

What of those who believe they possess absolute truth but refuse to even countenance debating them? For them Mill has this piece of advice:
However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that, however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth (p.42).
But there are those who refuse point blank to play this game. Truth for them is a matter of faith and therefore, from their point of view, no good can possibly come from it being questioned. Religious regimes and movements, for example, typically bring their influence to bear to protect their dogmas from rational scrutiny and discussion - the antics of Scientology are a case in point. Be that as it may, religious irrationalism and fundamentalism does not mean its critics should act in like manner. Regardless of the character of the position being critiqued, challengers have a responsibility to know the position they are critiquing. It means establishing a familiarity with the positions of people who sincerely believe them (and why they do so), and learn the most persuasive arguments they deploy to defend their position. Only this way can one become aware of all that can be said against one's own arguments. However, should we have complete and untrammeled freedom of opinion the light of reason would not banish the sectarian shadows cast by political and religious movements. Nor will it rid the world of people who accept everything they see at face value. But nevertheless as long as the liberty of thought and argument is preserved the hope all kinds of fundamentalism can be overcome remains.

In sum there are four basic points to Mill's arguments:

1) Suppressed opinions might be true. To say otherwise is to pretend infallibility.
2) Silenced opinion, even if it is mistaken, contains grains of truth whereas received opinion can never be the whole truth. By allowing the two to freely collide the truths of both are liberated.
3) Received opinion is only a truth if it is contested. In its absence it is merely prejudice.
4) In the absence of contestation an opinion loses its vitality and becomes a dry formality. Nor can it be renewed by conviction alone.

There are three main problems with Mill's arguments. The first is philosophical. His ethics of the argument sound fine as general principles, and of course I'm sure the left would be a nicer and more welcoming place if we all adhered to them. But they are completely divorced from material existence. Yes, Mill acknowledges that ideas derive from experience and the clash of ideas is really the argument over the interpretation of experience, but he completely fails to realise the extent to which ideas express collective experiences. While it is true working class Tories have always existed in their millions, left reformists and Marxist revolutionaries simply do not exist in the same proportion in ruling class circles (see here for more on this). Arguments therefore are more than squabbles about the truth between idiosyncratic individuals - it is a political struggle. Perhaps another example will suffice: the reason why the labour movement as a whole is opposed to fascism and can be found at the forefront of campaigns against the BNP and similar riff-raff is not because they present an ideological challenge. Rather it's that wherever fascists have come to power they have physically smashed up movements of working class people. Mill's ethics seem in step with how model students should behave in seminars than the messy reality of really existing politics.

The second problem is to do with the ethics themselves. There is a vagueness over what constitutes the suppression of an argument: is banning a group or an individual the same as the refusal to acknowledge and ignore a set of ideas? Because this blog does not solicit guest posts or comments from religious fundamentalists and would probably ignore such contributions, is the refusal to engage a breach of liberty? No. If Mill's ethics are to be consistent, the freedom of opinion must also allow for the freedom of abstention, provided this abstention is not a pretext for suppression. In the internet age where all manner of opinions wheel freely through cyberspace measures taken to exclude trolls or political and religious undesirables on blogs does nothing to suppress their ideas when ample opportunity to propagate their ideas by setting up their outlets exist.

The third problem is what is the exchange of ideas for? For example, as a leftist to me the Conservative party historically represents the political expression of capital. It is both opponent and enemy of my class. However is the liberty of thought and opinion being infringed because I am neither privy to its internal political discussions nor able to take part in them? Likewise is liberty offended because Tories are barred from my Socialist Party branch meetings? Of course not. Liberty of opinion is not the same as being forced to face violently opposing ideas at all times. Liberty of discussion includes the liberty of being able to engage with like-minded people free from intrusion of those who do not share the same basic positions.

Mill's ethics are limited (like much of his philosophy) by the level of abstraction his arguments operate on, which can serve to obscure more than they illuminate. But also, fully in-keeping with the spirit of Mill, his ethics are themselves a matter of opinion. To elevate them to the level of dogma like many on the right do (who are always the first to cry freedom of speech these days?) cuts against the thrust of Mill's position and justifies anything but rational critique and engagement.

Edit: A complete list of posts on On Liberty can be found here.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Orwell Prize for Blogging

I'd never heard of it, but the (now defunct) cop blog, Night Jack has walked away with the first Orwell Prize for Blogging.

The prize caused a bit of ripple on the left - mainly because the ubiquitous
Iain Dale made the shortlist. Given Orwell was a man of the left and an investigative journalist and Dale is, erm ... neither, quite a few bloggers let their objections be known.

However, the criteria for the prize was much more broadly defined. One does not have to travel the 21st century's roads to Wigan Pier or write dispatches from conflict hotspots. It's all about the writing:
The Orwell Prize rewards those who achieve George Orwell’s ambition ‘to make political writing into an art’. Entries should therefore be of equal excellence in style and content.

‘Political writing’ is defined in the widest possible sense, and encompasses subjects including (but not limited to) party politics, social issues, public policy, the media, conflict, public services, history, economics, the environment, local government, and international relations.
In this regard, my personal favourite from the shortlist would have to be Alix Mortimer of the LibDems. Leaving aside her politics, Alix offers some of the best writing in British political blogging.

But really. Seriously. Should anyone in their right minds give a fig about blog award ceremonies and contests? I mean, is there anything more introverted, geeky and, well, irrelevant?

On one level I suppose so. No one among the scores of socialist blogs out there think the revolution is going to happen online - though when it comes it
will be blogged and twittered. I can see it now - comrades taking time out from the barricades to jump on their laptops, phones and blackberries. But in the here and now we're stuck with the battle of ideas, and blogging is one arena among many where this is fought. So any contest that draws attention to political blogging should be seen as an opportunity by the blogging left, and especially the far left, to win over new audiences. This is difficult with something like the Orwell prize, which is judged by a panel of worthies drawn from the old media. But that potential is there for the more "democratic" blog awards, such as the Bloggies and Iain Dale's the Total Politics Top 100.

This is what it's about comrades. Good rankings in these contests stroke the old ego. But blogging and big audiences are not ends in themselves, they are a means to our socialist ends. In my opinion it would be a mistake to stay away from contests that funnel traffic our way. And I'm sure Orwell would have agreed.

The Budget '09: A Socialist Response

Tony Blair once boasted of feeling the hand of history on his shoulder. For Alistair Darling and the government, it's less a hand and more a bucket of bricks. Forget smeargate and the drip-drip of expenses scandals, the decisions the government made today not only bear upon their electoral fortunes over the next 12 months, they will decisively influence how history remembers New Labour. This in mind, was it an epoch-making budget? No, of course it wasn't. But does it constitute a final break with neoliberalism? Are they determined to make the working class pay for the crisis? Does it offer political openings for the left?

If there was a surprise in this year's budget, it lay in Darling's forecasts.

They are:


* The economy to shrink by 3.5% by the end of this year.
* A return to growth by the final quarter of 2009(!)
* The economy will grow by 1.25% in 2010.
* From 2011 growth will accelerate to around 3.5% and remain at that level.
* Inflation will continue to decrease - 1% by the end of this year.
* Thanks to projected economic growth, the yawning chasm of the budget deficit will fall by half by 2013.

Very optimistic to say the least.

So what were the measures announced?

* Unemployment Darling claimed the money already gone in has halved the turn around time between jobs compared with the previous recession. He therefore announced a further £1.7bn for Jobcentre Plus. Also, keen to avoid the persistent youth unemployment that was a chronic feature of the Tory recessions, under 25s unemployed for a year or more will have to choose between a job or further training. For this the government will work with business to create an extra 250,00 jobs. They will also make available £260m of training/subsidy money for sectors with "strong future demand". £250m this year and £400m next year will go to secure extra places in further education.

* Housing The chancellor pledged to work with the banks to make an extra £20bn of mortgages available. This would be secured by a government-backed mortgage guarantee scheme, but there was no mention of projected cost. To try and revive the housing market (mortgage lending may have risen 16% last month, but it is still around half the figures of this time last year), the holiday on stamp duty on properties worth up to £175,000 remains until the end of 2009. £500m is to be made available to restart stalled housing projects, and £100m will go to local authorities to build energy efficient homes.

* Business Loss-making businesses crippled by the collapse in credit can reclaim taxes on profits for the last three years. The much-vaunted car scrappage scheme that's exercised much media commentary in recent days was announced. Hand in a car 10 years old or over and you will receive £2,000 toward the cost of a new one. This is for a limited time only and runs out in March next year. Unsurprisingly Darling remained committed to maintaining Britain's position as the centre of world finance and previewed a package of regulations. These would cover corporate governance, remuneration, accountancy rules, transparency and saver and investor support. Also more would be spent on North Sea exploration to exploit the estimated two billion barrels remaining in "uneconomical" oil fields as well as transforming it into a site for gas storage, offshore wind power, and carbon capture. Furthermore money will be used to support advanced manufacturing, green business and communications technologies.

* The Green Economy Further announcements were served up with a dose of greenwash. £1bn would be invested in green collar jobs. £525m is to be ploughed into offshore wind farms over the next couple of years, which will apparently provide enough electricity to power three million homes. A further £435m will go into energy savings in the public, private and domestic sectors. The European Investment Bank will also make £4bn of capital available for green technology projects and business. There would be tax relief on up to four demonstrative carbon capture projects.

* Benefits From next year, child tax credit will go up £20 - it will be more if the child is registered as disabled. Statutory redundancy pay will be increased and for grandparents who are of working age but care for their children's children, this care will count towards state pension entitlement. To help counteract the declining interest rate, the threshold for pension credit is raised to £10,000. The winter fuel allowance is increased to £250 for over 60s and £400 for the over 80s.

* Taxation This might warm the cockles of Old Labour hearts out there. The one per cent of the population who receive salaries of £150,000+ will now pay the new 50% top rate of income tax. For those who earn in excess of £100,000 all forms of tax allowances are now withdrawn. Income tax remains frozen for the rest of us. Darling also pledged more action on closing tax loopholes. Measures identified by the Treasury will realise an extra £1bn tax revenue over the next three years. Lastly tobacco and alcohol are hit with a two per cent rise in duty, effective from 6pm and midnight tonight. Taken together these will raise an expected £6bn by 2012.

* Public Sector Rumours and expectations abounded of an axe falling on public spending. The chancellor conceded borrowing would grow to £175bn this year, then £173bn, £140bn, £118bn and £97bn for the years after. However he was very clever to avoid the c-word: cut. Instead the emphasis is on "making savings". This kind of action, he claims, has saved some £26.5bn in "efficiencies" since 2004. He is looking to make £9bn more every year until 2013. This will be back up by £60bn in asset and property sales by 2012.

He concluded with a sharp barb for the Tories: that Britain will grow out of recession, not cut its way out.

The budget is certainly a mixed bag. There is a pale green-social democratic colouring to it. While those of us on the left would certainly agree the taxation, benefits, green industries, education and support for manufacturing do not go far enough, they could be viewed as a step in the right direction. All of these provide avenues on which the left can campaign and build upon.

But, and this is a very big but, it shows the New Labour leopard cannot change its neoliberal spots. Darling may have avoided mentioning cuts but they are there, and they're substantial. As Chris Dillow demonstrates, measures aimed at eliminating public sector waste are extremely problematic. As any civil servant will tell you, government efficiency savings have come at the price of attacks on pensions, redundancies, increasing workloads and management authoritarianism. The overall result? A lower level of service provision. And then there is the £60bn sell off of remaining assets. These will necessarily include Royal Mail, the Royal Mint, recently acquired interests in the banks, outsourcing and privatisation of more local authority services. The list goes on and on.

In short Darling has presented a Frankenstein's Monster of a budget. The twitching corpse of neoliberalism has been stitched together with the cadaverous remains of disinterred Keynesianism. The application of a weak current of traditional labourism and green wash has jolted the creature into life. And now it stands, determined to make the working class pay a massively disproportionate share for a crisis not of its making. And it will succeed, unless our movement draws on the experiences of this year's wildcat strikes and workplace occupations.

Sorry, Mr Darling. You say: we pay. We say: no way.

Edit: Press releases from various unions in the comments box.

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Another Funding Scandal

Lifted from LabourHome by way of Political Betting:
“If the Conservative party had a single donor called UnitePLC that provided 40% of its donations, provided the CEO of the Conservative party, had its Head of PR setup websites for the Conservatives, hired people like Derek McPoison to run smear campaigns, unfairly influenced the process whereby many of its UnitePLC employees become Conservative MPs through donations and Uniteplc block votes in CLPs….. we would all be outraged at the infiltration of the Conservative party by a single company. But if we just changed the word Conservative to Labour in the above and deleted “plc” we arrive at the state of the Labour party.”
Yes, this kind of influence is in principle unhealthy. But is there proof Unite are receiving political favours for propping up this rotten corpse of a party? Can Labour right now be credibly accused of pushing a pro-union political agenda? 

The real scandal is not one of undue influence. It's that my former union is happy to throw money and personnel at Labour for very little in return.

Blogging Ethics

I maybe a little late to the party over Sunder Katwala's (pictured) statement of progressive blogging ethics but so far, contributions from the far left outside the Labour party have been lacking (previous two penneth worths can be read here, here, and here).

It's been interesting to see how smeargate has led to circuitous rounds of introspection and soul-searching by centre left bloggers. Take a look at the large number of posts on this very topic at Liberal Conspiracy, for example. This is not necessarily a bad thing - it's good that the left are upfront about their values. And the episode has demonstrated to everyone the gulf between the moral vacuum at the heart of New Labour and mainstream left opinion.

However, the statement of progressive blogging, while worthy, is broad to the point of meaninglessness. If you take out the explicit references to the left, there is no reason why some politicos who do not meet the basic criteria of 'progressive' (which I would broadly define as a commitment to equal rights and building a post-capitalist society) could not sign up. I'm sure LibDems and a few thinking Tories wouldn't have fundamental objections putting their name to it, if they were so inclined. That said, the statement is broad for a reason.

Pause for a moment and look at right-wing blogging in this country. It stretches from the Tory centre to the far right fringe, taking in neoliberals, one nation types, "libertarians", UKIP'ers, and so on. The big beasts of this jungle are Iain Dale and Paul Staines, followed by a few more right-wing blogs that pull in sizeable audiences, and then the rest. What tends to unite those who inhabit mainstream right are obsessions with parliamentary tittle-tattle, often hysterical denunciations of ZaNuLiarBore (did you see what they did there?) and "analysis" that serves to advertise their ignorance. The thoughtful Tory is a rare beast indeed.

But this swims with the media stream. What they value as news is a mirror image of what constitutes "newsworthiness". For example, if we return to the schema used here to dissect the Draper vs Staines affair, the homology between Iain Dale's blog content and media punditry has seen him cash in the cultural capital accumulated through blogging for a ubiquitous presence on the 24 hour rolling news media. Just see his itinery for the past couple of weeks. This is the primary reason why right-wing blogging has a higher profile, which appears to give traction to the intellectually lazy argument that the left "lags behind".

Lukacs hit upon something when he said the powers that be cannot see the wood for the trees. While the right concentrates a large and politically influential audience around a very narrow spectrum of interests, progressive blogging is much wider. There is the (centre) left inside and outside Labour. There is the far left. There are bloggers who write from feminist, anti-racist, and LGBT perspectives. It would be churlish to exclude the Greens, who are to all intents and purposes a centre left party. There are strong social democratic elements in the SNP and Plaid Cymru. And last but not least there are trade unionists. The "stars" of progressive blogging may not pull down as many readers as Dale or Guido but they are definitely in the same league. But they are only part of the story. I would stick my neck out and say the combined audience of progressive bloggers is much bigger than that enjoyed by the right.

The challenge is to make this audience more cohesive and a force for political good. For this reason the statement of progressive blogging ethics could not be anything but broad. As such it should be seen as a contribution to the debate on how we go about this and not a settled set of prescriptions.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Louis Theroux: A Place for Paedophiles

Few are hated and feared in equal measure than paedophiles. That one's children could be abducted and sexually abused is every parents' worst nightmare. But what is to be done with them? Understandably the sorts of punishments favoured by the public at large border on the mediaeval, which is regularly exploited by the right to attack rehabilitation and reform in custodial sentencing at large.

In this documentary, the doe-eyed Louis Theroux (pictured) travels into what many would regard as the ultimate heart of darkness: a secure hospital specialising in the detention and treatment of America's most dangerous paedophiles.
Coalinga State Hospital is part of California's extensive penitential and correction system, a system Theroux has covered before. As Coalinga's director's message makes clear, the hospital's mission "is a critical part of Governor Schwarzenegger’s very clear goal to protect Californian’s [sic] from sexual predators. Rather than having some of the most serious sex offenders released into the community after serving their criminal sentences, these predators will come to this maximum security psychiatric hospital to receive critical treatment and evaluation." When its current expansion is complete Coalinga will have the capacity to take on 1,500 patients, employ 2,000 staff and an annual budget of $152 million.

As noted in the
press blurb for Louis Theroux: A Place for Paedophiles, of the 800 patients currently housed by the institution, only a fraction - 13 - have been deemed safe enough to return to society. Not an obvious success story by any means. So what is it like inside? How are the paedophiles treated? And what do they themselves think about their situation?

Theroux's first interview is with Mr Rigby (all the offenders are referred to formally), a former high school sports coach who was sentenced for 10 years for molesting 11-12 year old boys via a sexual "initiation" he forced upon his athletic troupe. Louis asked what most of the audience are likely to have been thinking: as Mr Rigby was a patient who was deemed to be making progress, how can he guard against re-offending? He replied by "guarding his environment". Unfortunately he was immediately shown up for not doing this vert well. While he was showing the camera his corner of the dorm he shared with three other men, Louis spotted a print of three adolescent-looking ballet dancers - which was something none of the staff had picked up upon. This was to have consequences. At Rigby's progress hearing he said he was shocked to have had this pointed out to him - and went to the lengths of contacting the original's owners for reassurance they were
not adolescent boys.

After meeting Mr Rigby Louis went along to a group therapy session. Here the patients are encouraged to talk about their crimes and any lingering fantasies they may have. On this occasion the meeting was taken up by a man talking about regulating his sexuality by pacing out and lengthening the intervals between masturbation. Louis then took up with Ernie Marshall, one of the resident social workers at Coalinga and chair of the many group sessions. He asked how he manages to work with these men given the nature of their crimes. Does he like them? Ernie's reply was interesting - the challenge for him is seeing and treating the patients as whole human beings - they are more than just their previous behaviour. He also tries to find things to like in all the men and suggests no one wants to grow up to become a paedophile or a rapist.

Even though only a tiny fraction has successfully graduated from Coalinga's treatment plan, how can one be sure they are completely cured? The therapy utilises lie detection techniques - these include traditional polygraph measurements in addition to more specialised 'phallometric' tests. Typically the subject is fitted with a guage ringing the penis and is subject to a variety of images - some pornographic but mainstream, and others deviant but suggestive. Throughout the subject is observed via a monitor-mounted webcam and they are expected to place their hands in plain view so the guage cannot be slipped over their fingers.

Afterwards we meet Mr Lamb, an affable but penitent offender awaiting release. Unfortunately for him he has been stuck in limbo owing to the difficulty of finding a suitable place for him to move into. In all his case officer is looking at 1,100 rental properties. The problem of course is that no one wants a sex offender and especially a convicted paedophile as a tenant. Some times if local residents get wind of what's going on landlords can be intimidated into withdrawing from the resettlement programme. The difficulty lies in convincing the outside world the treatment has been successful. Later, after looking at Mr Lamb's prolific record of offences against young boys, Louis asks him how can we be sure he won't offend again - even if his crimes are decades past? Mr Lamb replies that you can only do so by his actions. The sexual attraction he once had has gone. Since being medically castrated, what he describes as his invasive fantasies have evaporated - that plus the rigorous assessment regimen he's gone through. Finally for Lamb a trailer is found on a friend's property which is away from large concentrations of people. Perhaps he was cured - only time will tell.

The flipside of Coalinga is that some 70% of its inmates refuse to enter the treatment programme. Louis met a few of these - one was adamant he was convicted of a crime 20 years previously that he didn't commit. Another said he was in for a date rape, but would much rather be in prison than held indefinitely in this holding pen. A Mr Yarn was definitely of the opinion the whole operation was a sham. Having exhausted all legal avenues his only possible route out of the hospital was therapy - but he refused it point blank. For yarn the therapy is based on a fundamental conceit - that anyone other than himself could know what's going on in his head. Asked if in that case he was still a danger, he didn't believe so. The acts he forced upon children were part of his make up
then, but having seen his children fully grown, he now realises they are people too(!) It seems unlikely Mr Yarn will ever be in a position to put this to the test.

Louis's closing words ponders what he seen. He admits being impressed by some inmates' sincerity and commitment to change, and notes how others clearly remain in the grip of self-delusion. But looking at the numbers residing at Coalinga and the trickle of men to have come out the other side, he asks if it exists not to treat but to contain the paedophile problem? Ernie Marshall was under no illusions about the place, despite his hopes for the programme. He said  Coalinga exists because of the outrage American society feels toward men who commit these crimes - he knows because his has to set aside his disgust to work with them everyday. But he also understands why many refuse the therapy because, under his interpretation of the constitution, they had served their sentence, so why should they go along with further incarceration?

When it comes to crime and punishment issues the left has often been all at sea - as I noted
last week. This is no less true when it comes to paedophiles. But this if further complicated by the a) interminable debates over the victims: what counts as underage, the distinction between child and adolescent, and whether the latter are capable of consensual sexual relationships with adults; b) the social psychological roots of paedophilia - the extent to which it is individually experienced as a compulsion, whether one experienced abuse when they were a child, etc; c) a healthy urge by the left to avoid the simplistic and authoritarian law and order rhetoric deployed by the right.

There is no point fighting shy of difficult issues like these. Hopefully sexual offences would not occur on the same scale in a socialist society, but it will take place nonetheless. There will always be dangerous deviations from the socially accepted norm and the kinds of debates California's policy has provoked is bound to have the same purchase in a society not scarred by systematic exploitation and oppression. The notion found in William Morris's
News from Nowhere that in the socialist future, murderers will receive just punishment at the hands of their consciences is utopian to say the least. Sad to say socialism will need prisons too, and though I would imagine rehabilitation would be emphasised over vengeance, some offenders need segregating from society for life, for society's protection. 

For the questions it raises and the insights it delivers, A Place for Paedophiles is required viewing for any socialist interested in this thorny issue.

Edit: You can watch the documentary online here.

New Blogs on the Block

Time for a round-up of some of the newest blogs to hit the left-wing political scene. I don't know if my powers of detection have grown or whether more leftists are feeling the need to enter the blogging fray, but quite a few newcomers have caught my eye this last month - so many that I'm going to have to hold some over for the next post in four weeks time. Here is what's on offer:

Media Studies is Shit is more than what it says on the tin. MSiS sets its sights on what some Marxists still call the 'culture industry'. Adverts, poetry, TV, video games and even Media Studies as a discipline come in for a kicking, and deservedly so.

Vengeance and Fashion is the name of a blog that, in its author's own words, is about neither vengeance or fashion but promises occasionally to address issues other than "socialist politics, music and football".

North Briton, the author of
The Radical Blues describes himself as a "sceptical, left-wing liberal, frustrated with all politicians, regardless of political persuasion." Sounds good. Then he goes and spoils it with "And I love cricket." Not to worry, his blog more than makes up for his unfortunate preference ;)

Norman Strike was a striking miner during the Great Strike of 1984-5. To commemorate 25 years of the dispute he's uploading the daily journal he kept at the time. Recommended.

A Mole in the Ground is a rare addition to the blog round up. I hear on the grapevine there are a lot of US-based socialist blogs, but I haven't a clue who they are! I hope the inclusion of this blog redresses the balance. Plus it's nice to read someone who's far from doe-eyed when it comes to all things Obama.

Pink Scare is yet another American blog. It "is a feminist blog that will often center strongly on economic and class issues, both in the United States and around the world. We'll be taking a critical look at a broad range of issues, with the intertwined effects of capitalism, race, class, and gender (among other things) at the forefront of our analysis. We aren't above a little American reality television, nor are we afraid to crack open the books and get seriously academic on you."

United Left is the blog for the, well, United Left within Unite. Unfortunately nothing has been posted since 3rd April - so I hope it hasn't given up the ghost more or less as soon as it began.

Feminazery is a group blog taking its name from the term of abuse beloved of batshitcrazy right wingers and "oppressed" white, middle class men. As the comrades put it, Feminazery blogs about "the Daily Mail, feminism and feminist issues, while reclaiming the term "feminazi" in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner. Frequently performed by Daily Mail hating feminazis from hell, who tend to spend their time being "power-hungry, man-hating, women's libbers", whilst secretly longing for a lovely man to come and buy us lots of nice clothes and give us babies." Sounds good - and it is.

Confessions of a Marxist promises us "social, political, cultural and economic analysis from a Marxist viewpoint." And quite a youthful one at that - the comrade is just 18! Proof, if it was needed, that the kids are all right.

And last but by no means least, the most proletarian and anti-revisionist communist party in the world ever has begun its own blog.
CPGB-ML Blog is probably unique amongst its leftist peers for praising North Korea's recent rocket launch and backing the regime of Robert Mugabe. Written in irascible ranty lefty style, it makes you thankful they are but a tiny blot on the far left's political landscape.

There are a handful of other blogs I want to give a quick shout out to. First is the TUC's
Touchstone blog. It might appear overly corporate but it does a good job covering new public policy research and trade union news, and for this deserves a wider audience. The next is Mick Hall's Organized Rage. Mick is known for his bullshit-free attitude to politics and this is reflected in his blog. He does cover a wide range of issues, but has particular interests in Irish Republican and Turkish politics. Last but not least there's Ian's Red Log, a blog of a similar broad range but possesses that rare ability (on the left) of getting a point across without having to pen 15,000 words.

One more thing, this last month I've finally
discovered Twitter. Most comrades probably know it as that thing Stephen Fry keeps banging on about, but from a blogger-activist-newshound angle it's proven very useful. It was through Twitter that comrades broke the news of Ian Tomlinson's death at the G20 protests, for example. There are a number of socialists who do use Twitter for reasons other than talking about their dinner. So if you use Twitter too, sign up!

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Branch Meeting: Marxists and Elections

The Socialist Party is not an electoralist party. As an organisation dedicated to the revolutionary transformation of capitalist society our party works across a broad number of fronts. Week in week out we are involved in trade union activity, community campaigning and organising meetings, in addition to the basic work of street stalls and paper sales. Preparing for and standing in elections is only a priority for a handful of our branches, but most have taken part in electoral contests from time to time. That said, electorally speaking, outside a few areas our party has hardly set the ballot boxes alight. So why bother? Explaining why was the task Brother A set himself at Thursday's night branch meeting of Stoke SP.

As fairly orthodox Marxists, the SP is of the view that the state is an institution that upholds capitalist class relations. Parliament is just one aspect of the state. Behind it stands a system of constitutional checks and balances, unelected bureaucracies, tiers of quangos and the state's repressive arm: the army, the police and the secret services. If a mass socialist party won majority representation at Westminster this constellation of agencies and institutions remain in place to frustrate its measures and protect the status quo in property relations. This view has long been a staple of Marxist thinking, but has found itself confirmed time and again by history - the most prominent being 1973's drowning of Chile's
parliamentary road to socialism in blood.

Despite this and the recent glut of scandals to have damaged the reputation of parliamentary politics, millions of people retain their illusions in liberal democracy. For us elections are just another area of work. We stand because it can give us the sorts of publicity we don't receive outside of them, and it can be helpful in moving a struggle forward. For example, the election of
Jackie Grunsell to Kirklees council did not harm the fortunes of the NHS campaign she was part of, and having that opening in the council chamber has allowed Jackie to assist a number of local workers' struggles. Where the SP does have elected representatives our actions also provide an opportunity to discredit and expose the other parties. For example, for all their anti-establishment verbiage the record of the BNP's 50-odd local authority councillors across Britain pales against that of just five SP representatives. Seldom has so little been done by so many.

But what about those circumstances when the SP doesn't stand under its own name? We have done it when we were part of the
Socialist Alliance and are going into the forthcoming European elections as part of the No2EU - Yes to Democracy slate. But, A asked, would it be better if we stood under our own name?

The discussion opened with a contribution from Sister J, who said coalitions with like-minded forces are often preferable so we avoid the silly situation of socialists standing against each other when large numbers of council and parliamentary seats won't face a socialist challenge at all. Brother N focused on what No2EU represents - it differs from previous left coalitions and broad-based alternatives because it is backed by a major trade union. The
RMT's support shows other unions there are other ways to be involved in politics than just a strained relationship with Labour. And for this reason a lot of trade unionists in Labour-loyal unions will be following what happens with No2EU closely - what counts here won't necessarily be the size of the vote.

Brother F moved onto the nature of the EU and argued that we should see it as a transnational centralisation of capitalist rule. Take lobbying, for example. At the moment firms run offices to lobby for their interests in all the capitals of the EU. But as the EU has assumed greater powers to the point where it is the primary source of law in most countries, it is easier for firms to centralise their lobbying operations around the EU bureaucracy. The democratic deficit that exists at the heart of Europe means, theoretically, that firms can bypass the limited democracy of the member states and have their will enforced against democratic aspirations from below.

He then turned to the opposition to the EU. The right have been allowed to run with the issue of sovereignty for too long. When it comes to the Lisbon Treaty, the only problem
UKIP have with it is that it's an EU measure. Shorn of its EU constitutionalism, he doubted they would find little fault if it the UK government was ramming through its neoliberal measures. Brother P came in to argue we should assess the EU dialectically rather than paint it as a straight neoliberal institution and draw conclusions from that analysis. Unfortunately, while it enshrines a modicum of social democracy in the much-maligned (by the right) Social Chapter, the role it has played this last 20 years is as a neoliberal battering ram against the more corporatist policy direction traditionally favoured by Germany, Italy, France and Scandinavia and the midwife of neoliberal restructuring in Eastern Europe underlines its character as something to be opposed by socialists. Nevertheless among some layers the EU represents itself as the crystallisation of Enlightenment values, as the epitome of liberal internationalism. Brother B, recalling his studies, said that academia tends to reinforce this perspective. When he did international relations he learned about different critical perspectives, but when he took modules related to the EU out they went and in came uncritical liberal theories of the state.

Returning to electoral politics N flagged up the argument often heard on the far left from Labour supporters that standing in X, Y and Z seats will let the
Tories or, worse, the BNP in. We've heard this before - when our sitting SP councillor came up for re-election and faced off against Labour and the fascists, it was we who were accused of splitting the anti-fascist vote - no words for the populist independent, no condemnation of the LibDems. And of course, if we were to blame for letting the BNP in why is it Labour have not only proven unable to win subsequent contests in Stoke's Abbey Green ward, but the BNP's margin of victory is actually increasing? P argued this idea of homogenous voting blocs is a psephological conceit - the primary reason why a party does not win an election is because its campaign has not persuaded enough people to turn out and vote for it. If the BNP are polling well that's a challenge for other parties to meet rather than grubbing around for pathetic excuses.

The discussion then came back to A. When we stand in elections there are two things we need keep in mind. We want to win new people to socialist ideas and we want to build our party. And we need to take the interests of the wider class into account. For the SP the immediate strategic objective in front of socialists is establishing mass working class political independence. No2EU could be an important step in that direction, not because it's going to win millions of votes but it pulls together forces from within the unions around a progressive platform. The relationships the campaign will build and the experience of working together will be the real gain of the European elections, and it puts us on a good footing for an ambitious intervention at next year's general election. And who knows? It might just be under the banner of a newly-formed left alternative.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Liberty and Individual Sovereignty

John Stuart Mill prefaces his essay, On Liberty with an introduction on the nature of liberty. As he puts it, his inquiry is about "the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual" (1929, p.1). For Mill this has been a live feature of human history more or less since day one. Authority has always sought to subordinate the individual to its will, and the individual has struggled to preserve liberty as protection against authority's capricious tyranny.

This has traditionally been done in two ways. First, liberty has meant imposing certain obligations on rulers in the shape of rights and immunities granted to their subjects. Therefore it would be a break with this obligation if the sovereign infringed them. Secondly there has been the crystallisation of these checks into a series of constitutional limits placed on the sovereign's power, which in turn are overseen by a body independent of it. As far as Mill was concerned, the Europe of his day had realised liberty in the first sense but constitutional guarantees were still an objective of liberal campaigners.

There had been other significant gains for liberty too. The advancing tide of democracy had seen a dispersal of sovereignty. Despite autocracy being alive and well in 1859, the days of the ruler standing over and apart from the people were numbered. Liberal democracy was making a serious claim to be the preferred form of bourgeois governance. Sovereignty now lay in the state itself and was exercised by representatives revocable via elections. Under these circumstances it could be argued the concern with liberty no longer applies. The new rulers were drawn from the ranks of the people and won elections on the basis of who best reflects the national will. If the state now reflects the aspirations of the electorate, doesn't the concern with tyranny and liberty become superfluous?

No.
It was now perceived that such phrases as "self-government" and "the power of the people over themselves" do not express the true state of the case. The "people" who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised; the "self-government" spoken of is not the government of each by himself but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority: the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number, and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power. The limitation, therefore, of the power of government over individuals loses none of its importance when the holders of power are regularly accountable to the community - that is, to the strongest party therein. (1929, pp.4-5)
If anything the tyrannical potential of the majority is greater than that exercised by the autocrats of the past. There are fewer means of escape when society "decides" to do something, because these decisions can extend beyond the political and encompass general conduct. As Mill puts it "there is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensible to a good condition of human affairs as protection against political despotism"(p.6).

This for Mill is the fundamental principle. But the difficulty lies in establishing the limits. History has bequethed a large body of customs, rules and laws that have arisen through millenia of mundane practices. But also conduct can be derived from a society's attachment or aversion to its rulers and its Gods, in other words the extent to which its morality is rooted in servility. For Mill norms and laws articulate society's likes and dislikes (or fears).

Mill argued that the English politics of his day were, among other things, characterised by a general regard for the protection of private conduct and a popular view of an opposition between the government's and public's interest (an opposition still with us, if recent press coverage is anything to go by). Where the government exercises its powers, invariably there will be an invasion of the sphere set aside for private conduct, and if this is impingeing on areas not to have felt government interference before opposition is more or less a given. But again there are no general principles guiding either government action or public reaction - some would welcome administrative action because it is designed to salve a particular social ill. Others would argue the persistence of that same ill is a price worth paying vis a vis the greater danger of a government expanding its scope. How this opposition is played out is purely conjunctural.

On Liberty aims to remedy this:
The object of this Essay is to assert one very simple principle, as entitled to govern the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion and control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion. The principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection (p.11).

For Mill this is the only principled basis for interference. Apologies that fall short of this such as, for example, "we interfered for their own good" provide no justification. This might offer grounds for arguing and remonstrating with an individual about their conduct, but it falls short of compulsion. The forcible "protection" from harm is in fact forcing harm upon another. In short, if an individual is neither a child or has some sort of impairment, then leave alone.

But On Liberty's idea of the sovereign individual is not a manifesto for the war of all against all. There is such a thing as society. Liberty and society are in tension, but society can find ways of compelling its members without injuring their liberty. For Mill society can reasonably expect individuals to participate in court proceedings and other projects of benefit to society as a whole. Its members are obliged to prevent various ills, such as save a life or defend someone from attack. The rights liberty confers on individuals is balanced by a set of responsibilities. But these are the limits of society's interests. The "portion of a person's life and conduct which affects only himself, or, if it also affects others, only with their free, voluntary and undeceived consent and participation" (p.14) is off-limits. This is the region of liberty over which society has no rights. Here, liberty, if it means anything, is the liberty of conscience, thought and opinion; the liberty of pursuing one's tastes and pursuits free from interefence; and the freedom to combine with others provided such combinations are voluntary and do not desire to cause others harm. If a society does not guarantee these liberties, regardless of the rhetoric it employs, it cannot be free.


Mill's statement on liberty has the virtue of being simple and clear, but for all that it is problematic from a socialist standpoint. For example the treatment of society here is nebulous and is a million miles from what Victorian capitalism was like, with its stratification, patriarchy, class conflict and competing class fractions. Of course all philosophical statements deal with abstract notions of what society is, but one should always be watchful when abstractions conceal more than they reveal. To be fair Mill's Introductory does nod toward the influence of class on morality - he acknowledges the tendency for it to reflect the ascendent class and how the popularity of a moral code is likely to fall if a pre-eminent class is in decline, but that is as far as it goes here. But a full Marxist critique is beyond the scope of this post and will be returned to down the line.

Somewhat surprisingly given the piece's tone, Mill is able to justify significant infringements of liberty in the name of progress. Despite describing history as a conflict between liberty and authority, strangely, liberty only becomes operative at a certain stage of development, when humanity is able to advance through what Mill calls "free and equitable discussion". Liberty therefore does not apply in "backwards states of society". To demonstrate:

The early difficulties in the way of spontaneous progress are so great that there is seldom any choice of means for overcoming them; and a ruler full of the spirit if improvement is warranted in the use of any expedients that will attain an end perhaps otherwise unattainable. Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end (p.12).
How many times have similar sentiments been voiced by Stalin apologists? It's no qualitative leap to justify imperialism, be it of the colonial or "humanitarian" kind, in these terms either.

Nevertheless Mill was a man of his times and the case could be made to excuse his arguments on that basis. After all, Marx and Engels were known to use racial epithets and, in some circumstances, justify colonialism from the standpoint of the development of the productive forces - that didn't necessarily invalidate their work. And so it is true here. Mill's refusal to extend liberty to everyone does not mean he had nothing of value to say about liberty per se. And it is this liberty per se as it applies to thought and discussion that will be dealt with in the next post in this series.

Edit: A complete list of posts on On Liberty can be found here.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Policing the Police

When was the last time the police received so much negative media attention? To compound the death of Ian Tomlinson at the G20 protests, the last 72 hours has see the so-called 'pre-emptive' arrest of 114 people who were planning an action at Ratcliffe power station near Nottingham, and footage of a police attack on an unarmed protestor has emerged - also from the G20 protests. The officers involved have now been suspended. In the mean time the Independent Police Complaints Commission has been forced to acknowledge the events surrounding Iain Tomlinson's death have in fact been captured by CCTV. In one of the most heavily surveilled corners of London, to claim otherwise - as they originally did - was an incredulous step too far. Therefore news of a review into 'public order' policing is to be welcomed

This spotlight on police behaviour is welcome. Under the Conservatives and New Labour the police have been deployed as a political tool, from aggressively and ruthlessly prosecuting class struggle from above to intimidating and criminalising dissent. The police themselves have enjoyed ever greater arms-length management and are actively lobbying for more power, and mainstream politicians are only too happy to indulge them.

There is one thing lacking in the mounting print and blog commentary on the left: what is to be done about the police?

Marxists have no illusions in the police. They are the first line of the repressive arm of the state. This state is, to paraphrase Marx, a committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie. One of these 'common affairs' is the problem of managing the working class and ensuring it is never in a position to threaten private property in the means of production - the wellspring of bourgeois power in all capitalist societies. For Marxists the police represent a serious obstacle to realising socialism. This is why, traditionally, many a revolutionary programme has argued for disbanding the police and its replacement by militias formed from the conscious workers themselves - to defend and strengthen working class power. The obvious difficulty is outside a revolutionary situation, calling for the abolition of the police invites derision and dismissal. The far left in Britain has either tended to argue this position regardless, compounding their isolation from the bulk of the politically interested population (take your pick from among the colourful array of ultra-lefts), or have maintained a strategic silence, as this otherwise okay piece in Socialist Worker illustrates.

This has tended to leave the far left with very little to say about crime and everyday policing. It may be good on the diagnosis of crime but is decidedly poor in what can be done about it, creating the impression the left is soft on criminality and completely unserious about it. Obviously, this is not good enough - it leaves us disarmed in front of those communities where crime and anti-social behaviour is endemic. And from an 'orthodox' point of view of progressing the class struggle, there is no development of a strategy to neutralise the police as the first line of the capitalist state. It's an issue left hanging in the air, presumably to be sorted out at some point down the line.

Among the revolutionary left the Socialist Party stands unique for developing a set of transitional demands on law and order issues. It recognises working class communities bear the brunt of crime and argues for a variety of strategies to tackle it - more resources is one part, but the other is about empowering those communities through the democratic control of policing. At the moment accountability is haphazard and indirect. Localised policing is overseen by local authority police committees on which sit elected councillors, police liason officers do the rounds at community centres, plus the IPCC quango deals with complaints. Democratic accountability exists partially through the police committees only, and even then they have no rights over policy or personnel. For example, last year Staffordshire Police were very pleased with themselves for clamping down on cannabis factories and raiding businesses for illegal workers - but these are not the crime and policing issues that exercise the press or Potteries people at large.

In the USA, with some variation, there is limited democratic input into policing - for example Sheriffs can be elected. And also looking back into Britain's past there once existed watch committees comprised of notables, but were largely done away with as mass suffrage came into being. Today so-called community policing and neighbourhood watch schemes place greater public expectations and diffuse "demands" on the police from below - but none of these are up to the accountability job. A tier of locally and regionally-based committees made up of lay community representatives in conjunction with a beefed up and democratised police watchdog with powers of scrutiny, policy direction, suspension and dismissal is what the situation demands to rein the police in. In addition the Police Federation (the SPF in Scotland) should be accorded the status of an independent trade union with the full rights enjoyed by other unions. The anti-democratic Association of Chief Police Officers should be abolished.

Reforms of these character are not a magic bullet that would clean crime up over night. Looking at what can be done to regenerate crime "black spots" from the ground up as well as pursuing more intelligent policies on drugs have to be part of any socialist crime and policing strategy. But reforming the police would certainly do more to create the kind of responsive policing the public expect.

Democratising the police would also blunt their role as the gendarme of the ruling class - as with all democratic demands placed on the state it weakens their class power and makes it more difficult for them to use it to defend their interests. It can also act as a response to policing ideology on two levels. It challenges the police on their hegemonic strengths - they portray themselves as the thin blue line between "decent people" and the deviant underworld. These reforms are designed to make sure the police stick to their 'official' role. And secondly, as difficult as some might find this to swallow, a lot of police join up because they subscribe to this ideology - there could exist a base of support from within the police themselves to make the reforms work.

Ultra-leftists are bound to spit blood at these sorts of measures. Some in fact take the SP's position on democratising policing as evidence of its "reformism", because it refuses to parrot the orthodox position. That's fine - they can indulge their love for the sacred texts as much as they like. It's up to them if they want to treat politics as preparation for a re-enactment of 1917, the Spanish Civil War or the French 'May Events'. However, as far as I'm concerned the SP's basic thinking is about making socialism relevant to the situation as it stands and not how we would like it to be, and the call to democratise the police reflects that.