Wednesday 28 February 2007

An Audience with John Robb

I love them Channel 4 list programmes. Greatest gay icon, most talked about stars, best selling stadium rock acts, top ten best top ten lists. They’re great for catching up on celebrity trivia or learning what the key events in post-war British pop are. Moreover if you’re a poseur like me, they’re essential.

One of the regular talking heads from these shows, John Robb, came and gave a talk at Keele towers today. In case you don’t know he’s juggled a career as jobbing music journalist and punk performer for nigh-on 30 years. He describes these years as a perpetual childhood, with no responsibilities and (sadly), no cash. Still, being lead singer of Goldblade and having a few well respected rock histories under his belt isn’t bad for someone who never grew up.

Around 50 turned up to hear him speak, mostly bright young students and a few academic types whose youth is far behind them (this writer being the notable exception of course!) Interesting, given the event was hosted by Keele’s Media, Communications and Culture dept. that one of the first things he launched into was a broadside directed at academic studies of pop and rock. He argued that research in the field talks about the emergence of particular groups as the products of a confluence of social forces, when in fact the reason why people start bands and go to gigs is something more primal - such as having a laugh, getting pissed and trying to get a shag. Having had a passing acquaintance with some of the sociology of pop, I’d have to agree. As an example, Tim Wall’s book, Studying Popular Music Culture is one of the driest and most deadly dull books you could ever read. Give me the ‘Job begat little Jimmy’ bit of the bible any day. It’s not just that though, the big problem here is sociologists mistaking the model they have of reality with reality itself: people only behave *as if* according to sociological models, not because these models are governing behaviour. I believe Marx said something along the lines of “we must not mistake the things of logic with the logic of things”, but I digress.

In all we had quite a jolly time. We were treated to a few potted highlights from his career, such as fortuitously being friendly with the Stone Roses well before they erupted into popular consciousness, and giving Nirvana their first ever interview back when they were a 4-piece. There were a couple of rants in there as well, such as whether the behaviour of Pete Doherty can be considered shocking when our government has participated in an illegal war resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Robb also had time for a few questions from aspiring music journos and wannabes. Most concentrated on how he managed to establish himself as a authoritative rock writer and what advice he could give to kids just starting out. To get noticed as a correspondent he suggested bombarding the NME office with gig reviews, which are more likely to be taken up now as it no longer employs writers out in the provinces and especially if they’re framed in such a way that it appears something new is just bubbling under and threatening to spill overground. And if they won’t then there’s always the internet. There are tons of music websites crying out for writers, and if none are suitable it's a simple job to set up an outlet for one's own views. The same theme was present in his advice to bands: gig, tour, sort out band media, gig some more, get a mate to stay up all night making friends on Myspace, and do more gigging. The accent was very much on the DIY ethos that made punk what it is.

This gave Robb the chance to dabble in a spot of social forecasting. In the years preceding punk, music was untouchable. That is it was something to be listened to and passively consumed. This is what punk kicked against. Since the criminalisation and repression of rave culture in the early 90s the relationship between pop and its audience has been one of distance and passivity, but now it’s beginning to look like the wheel’s turned full circle. The internet and the proliferation of media technologies give bands opportunities to build fan bases and construct their own image independently of corporate branding and the filters of the music press.

It seems at the moment the big corporates have a handle on what's going on, as the meteoric rise of the Arctic Monkeys to mainstream success testifies. Nevertheless, if a new generation of young people are wanting to make things happen for themselves, you don’t need me to spell out the implications beyond making music.

Tuesday 20 February 2007

UCU Hustings

Today, around 20 academics attended the general secretary hustings organised by Keele's University and Colleges Union. This is the first election for the new union, which formed after the Association of University Teachers and the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education fused. It is therefore an important election as it could determine the direction of the union for many years to come.

All three candidates were invited to put their case. Unfortunately Sally Hunt (the joint incumbent and former head of the AUT) declined the invite, citing "busyness". Nothing to do with the frosty reception she received when she last visited, I'm sure. Both Peter Jones and Roger Kline accepted, but in the end only Kline turned up. This is just as well. The UCU Left are backing him as are most of the left groups, so it was interesting to see if he deserved this support.

I certainly liked what I heard. His short lead off dwelled on two matters: management culture, and the direction the UCU should be heading in. He opened with the complete breakdown in trust between academic staff and management, citing the awful example of Leeds Met where staff have to carry around mobile phones so the powers can conduct spotchecks at any time. Likewise other institutions have been employing consultants to ring in to check up on academic's customer relations "skills". Taken in conjunction with increasing workloads, the subordination of academic freedom to perceived commercial viability, privatisation of some university functions and the removal of fees caps, all point to the marketisation of further and higher education.

It follows from this the UCU needs a strategic orientation, seeing as the government and the employers have theirs. To this end the UCU needs to become the champion of quality education by ensuring the interests of the union coincide with the members, the students, and society at large. The UCU has to be political, albeit with a small 'p'. FE and HE are highly politicised battlegrounds, so a retreat into apolitical trade unionism is to fly in the face of reality. Lastly the UCU must be transparent and accountable. Kline was open to say that without it union bureaucrats would do what comes naturally to them, which is to compromise. Without democracy the union cannot learn from its mistakes nor attract sufficient members that could make the UCU a really powerful player ministers would ignore at their peril.

Inevitably last year's acrimonious dispute over pay was going to come up. One union militant queried Kline on the ending of disputes, as the strike and action short of a strike (i.e. the exam boycott) was called off by the AUT leadership without any kind of consultation. As Kline was a full timer for NATFHE at the time he claimed there was very little coordination between the two unions, to the point where they only met for a total of seven hours throughout the months long action. He argued that if he was in the position of heading up a dispute he would not simply announce a deal had been done, but would put it to members in the form of delegate conferences for them to decide. He also outlined his position on local wage bargaining. Where research has been done into its effects on workforces, invariably the bulk are forced to accept lower wages, and worse workers who happen to be black or women tend to endure pay discrimination.

As a union of 135,000 members we are presently punching well below our weight and I think the strategic vision Kline offers could help bring us into our own. I know where my vote will be going. If you're in the UCU you should support him too.

Monday 19 February 2007

Conspiracy Files: 9-11

Unfortunately, last night's The Conspiracy Files was complusive viewing for socialists. I say unfortunately because too many comrades have become seduced by conspiracy theorising around the events of September 11th. Of late some comrades (who will remain nameless to spare their blushes) have endorsed the conspiratorial point of view on the UKLN, claiming the biggest conspiracy leading us to believe they were the actions of a rag tag group of terrorists controlled by a guy hiding in a hole somewhere in Afghanistan. I know one comrade who's convinced the World Trade Centre buildings were demolished through controlled explosions, and I remember debating with a particularly obnoxious character (again on the UKLN) mere days after the event. He was already claiming the attacks were an inside job.

The BBC2 documentary was useful because it tackled the "inconsistencies" flagged by the consipracy theorists head on. It explains why air defence failed to intercept the jets on their fateful journey, rubbished claims that Jewish workers stayed away from the Twin Towers that morning, explained how the towers were able to collapse without the buildings' steel supports melting, and much else besides.

The three I want to focus on are the crash into the Pentagon, the collapse of WTC Building Seven, and the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

The crash of American Airlines Flight 77 into the Pentagon has attracted much attention as photographs of the hole in the building's exterior wall appears to be large enough just for the fuselage, but not the wings, engines or tail finns. This has lead those of a conspiratorial bent to speculate it was caused by a cruise missile or possibly a remote controlled drone aircraft. The evidence presented by the documentary proves these claims are unfounded. A simulation by a team of structural engineers at Purdue University shows how a commercial airliner can disintegrate when hitting a building composed of steel reinforced concrete pillars, like the Pentagon. There was also the small matter of the site being littered with aircraft debris, the numerous eye witnesses, and the fact that no conspiracy theorist has come up with the location of Flight 77 and its passengers if it was indeed a missile attack.

The collapse of WTC Building Seven is also a favourite among conspiracy theorists. According to The Conspiracy Files it was purposely demolished because the attack on the Twin Towers was coordinated from one of its government offices - the Office for Emergency Management, the CIA, or the Secret Service. The purpose was simply to cover up evidence for the conspiracy. Once again the claims do not stand up. During the attack the building was hit in several places by flaming wreckage that, in turn started a blaze on the 5th and 7th floors of the tower. These in turn were fuelled by the building's diesel tanks. Taken in conjunction with the debris damage the two account for the collapse. There was no controlled demolition.

Finally the crash of Flight 93 was due to it being shot down by the US airforce rather than an outcome of the struggle for control of the craft, or so argue the conspiracy lobby. Here they claim the pattern of debris is scattered over an area more consistent with a missile strike than a plane crash. Unfortunately for them, as the programme illustrated our conspiracy friends inputted the position of the main crater and a nearby debris field into an internet mapping engine and came up with the distance between the two points by road. These seven or eight miles are in fact just a mile as the crow flies. Ooops!

The Conspiracy Files confronted Dylan Thomas, director of the Loose Change "documentary" and one of the main movers behind the 9/11 internet conspiranoia. Faced with detailed rebuttals on building demolition by Popular Mechanics all he could muster in response was that the journal was not noted for its expert knowledge in structural engineering. This is quite ironic considering the howling errors pointed out by critics of his work.

I do not possess expert knowledge on the issues that exercise the conspiracy theorists, but then their explanations seem so wide of the mark. The narrative of four hijacked jets piloted by Islamic fundamentalists is the one that fits the established facts most clearly.

The final points made by the show were very useful. It highlights the real September 11th conspiracy - that the FBI and CIA claimed to know nothing when in fact they were aware something was in the offing. Another (not mentioned in the documentary) concerned the inept attempts to cover up deleterious health impacts on rescue and other workers in the vicinity so the district could be re-opened for business. You've got to ask yourself if government agencies couldn't cover up comparatively minor matters, how could they be expected to plan something as audacious as the September 11th attacks and make sure all evidence of their actions were efficiently suppressed?

Conspiracy theorising does have its uses - it probes official accounts and deeply scrutinises the words and actions of our masters. Sadly this comes hand in hand with a huge pile of stuff and nonsense. Significance is read into the slightest of discrepencies, and fantastical theories spun from the most meagre groundings in fact. More dangerously conspiracy theorising cuts against the materialist interpretation of history. It suggests a few powerful individuals are capable of determining the social course, that the profoundly alienating structures of contemporary human societies are plotted behind the scenes by big business, the illuminati, transdimensional lizards or little grey aliens. If only it were that simple. The truth of capitalist anarchy is no one is in control. Humanity is in thrall to the alien power of capital that stands above and beyond the command of any individual, group, multinational and government, despite being the result of the activity of our species. That we are on a rollercoaster without any brakes is a truth more terrifying than any shadow government.

Monday 12 February 2007

Delta of Venus

Stropps of Stroppyblog fame has a gripe. While it appears socialist women are happy to blog about issues of sex and sexuality, socialist men (with the noted exception of Jim Jay) aren’t. I’m not immune either. For instance I had no hesitation composing a silly post about the living dead, and yet I had to really think twice before contributing my few thoughts on Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus. Is there something about our socialist culture inhibiting me and other (straight) lefty men from addressing sex and sexuality politically? Or is it just me? Do I need to be conscious of my inner prude? I’ll try and explore this more fully in a future post, hopefully redressing the balance identified by Stropps at least where AVPS is concerned.

One consequence of not regularly talking about sex politically is the difficulty of how to muse about Delta of Venus. I’ve never written anything about erotic fiction or erotica except the odd two-penneth on UKLN debates around porn and prostitution. Neither am I particularly acquainted with the field of erotic literature; a book each by Henry Miller (Tropic of Cancer) and Melissa P (One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed) are about it. If the latter and the celebrity of Abby Lee’s blog and book are anything to go by, (young) women’s sexual autobiography is where the action’s at, if you pardon the clumsy pun.

Judging from my limited knowledge of the field, I’d stick my neck out and say a “return” to Delta of Venus is timely. Nin’s book has been rightly celebrated not just for the quality of her writing, but for being a pioneer who was among the first to place female desire at the centre of the work. Nin’s scenarios are incredibly evocative and compelling. The narrative is strongest where it is based among the literati of early 20th century Paris. As an intimate of the scene the encounters she plays out - prostitution, threesomes, gay and lesbian relationships, kinky sex – are stunningly realised and utterly believable. If the aim of Orwell’s writing was to be as clear as a pane of glass, Nin's words leap from the page and immerses you in the feast of flesh. It is for this reason some of her vignettes dealing with abuse, incest and rape (‘The Hungarian Adventurer’, ‘The Boarding School’) can be quite uncomfortable.

Nin was paid a dollar a page to write what became Delta of Venus by a mysterious collector of erotica. He demanded nothing but clinical descriptions of sex expunged of all emotion and “poetry”. It is ironic that despite the artistic blow for women’s sexual freedom the work represents, it was the culmination of what Nin herself characterised as her period of literary prostitution; a period where she was forced to sell her (literary) labour power to support herself and her lover, Henry Miller. While many of the erotic adventures were ground breaking because it was a woman distilling her own sexual experiences and fantasies through the medium of her characters, the necessary surrendering of her artistic autonomy and demands of the patron meant the ideological division between romantic love and sex is, for the most part, perpetuated throughout. At the very moment Delta was appropriated by feminists and wielded as a weapon against the patriarchal regulation of women’s bodies, it nevertheless affirmed one of its chief devices.

But ultimately contradictions between the conditions a work of art is produced in, the motivations of the author, the issues and questions suggested by the content, and how it is received is what makes art something worth talking about. Given the few funny looks I got reading Delta on the bus, the reception Nin’s opus provokes suggests the conversation about it is far from over.

Sunday 11 February 2007


When I last posted I had a vision of churning out posts aplenty these last few days. I had in mind a meditation on Anais Nin's Delta of Venus (in case you don't know, it is a classic of erotic fiction). This post was to be followed by one looking at Pierre Bourdieu's theory of fields, capital, and habitus and how I plan to use it in relation to my PhD on SP and SWP activists. Tonight's musings were to be on Hollywood's silly disaster flick, The Day After Tomorrow.

Unfortunately I sat myself down on Friday evening to have a pop at the press coverage of Anna Nicole Smith's untimely death, but then it just went. The post just disappeared down a big black hole and nothing short of a major effort was able to retrieve it. But it would not come. And so it was yesterday and today.

I've need to be honest with you, and myself.

I am struggling with blogger's block.

I need solutions. Fast. How do you manage to post (nearly) every day? Do you have any tips that pick you up when your writing has gone off the rails?

Thursday 8 February 2007

Branch Meeting: NHS and Conference Resolution

Not the snappiest of titles but that about sums up tonights meeting. In reverse order of the items on the agenda, we talked about the resolution I submitted last week. This was inspired by some musings I had on constitutional issues not too long ago. In all essentials it boils down to noting a constitutional crisis is looking likely if the SNP gets a majority after the Scottish parliamentary elections. As this is a UK-wide issue it is likely to impinge on politics in England too, and is one the right (Tories, UKIP'ers) will seek to run with. What the resolution calls for is more development of our existing positions and publicity in party publications. A put forward a number of proposed changes to the resolution that were adopted unanimously, which in my opinion strengthen the overall position.

Before this it was the NHS. This came up because our branch has earned a ban from the University Hospital of North Staffordshire. Our heinous crime was to gather petition signatures against the cuts hospital management are ramming through, invite passers by to cast votes in our consultative ballot over a proposed 4-day week for central outpatients and of course, sell papers.

For reasons best known to themselves the letter they sent to us was also copied to Stoke's local rag, The Sentinel. Lo and behold, on page 7 of Tuesday's paper we have an article where Julia Bridgewater, the new chief executive hatchet-woman (and apparently, a practising a Christian) claims the measure is "for the protection of patients who are often distressed and vulnerable". How very touching. Perhaps she'd like to be reminded of these words next time she refuses to replace staff, cuts doctors and nurses' numbers and rents out capacity to patients who can afford to pay.

Another point that made my blood boil about this sorry piece is Pat Powell of UHNS Unison lining up with the bosses, for purely sectarian reasons. In all my years of activity I have never come across someone who's so wilfully taken it on themselves to sabotage and limit a campaign. She says (on the collection of money), "Unison is fully funding the campaign". I'm scratching my head here, because since last April's demo there has been *no* campaign in the hospital. I've spoken to dozens of workers and the answer is more or less the same - if there is a campaign going on, they know nothing about it.

Then there is this classic: "SOS [NHS Save Our Staff] has continued to put out false information and that could undermine our campaign to save jobs". This is a charge she's made before, and she doesn't make herself look any less stupid for repeating it. First, Powell has never bothered to point out where the information the campaign and the party uses is wrong. And second the local information both use for stall material ... comes from Pat Powell's pronouncements in The Sentinel! In effect, she's accusing herself of putting out misinformation! Not for the first time, eh Pat?

In response some comrades (including yours truly) have sent letters to the paper, some responding to developments, others to charges made in the article. Other actions are up our sleeves but I'll keep them close to my chest for now.

Fame at Last!

... well, of sorts. One of the reasons this blog has been slack this week is because I wrote a guest post for Dave Osler's blog.

When Dave asked me to compose something for his regular guest slot, I was both flattered and daunted. Flattered because what with the book, The `Part, and occasional Newsnight stints as a shipping expert, Dave’s a big celebrity these days. But daunted because making the case for the Socialist Party at a place frequented by many independent activists whose past experience of the SP/Militant is quite a difficult task. You can read my effort here.

Normal service will resume tonight. But that will be the last SP related post for a while. Well, the weekend at least. It's about time more PhD matters and other random musings got a look in.

Just to quickly note I've added Unknown Conscience to the counter-hegemonic blog bloc and there's every chance some others will pop up over the course of the weekend.

Tuesday 6 February 2007

A Cold Turkey

In a previous era our masters were keen on conspicuous displays of anti-racism, or charity work (who like Smashie and Nicey, affect an attitude of not liking to talk about it), so it is nowadays with environmental issues in general and climate change in particular. And then, just when you thought bourgeois greenery had reached saturation point, along comes yet another establishment-friendly initiative: Global Cool.

Launched simultaneously in London and LA, this ‘down with the yoof’ campaign has an ambitious objective: if a billion people reduced their carbon emissions by one ton, then that would be, erm, one billion tons not going into the atmosphere. This laudable aim is supported by the likes of KT Tunstall, The Killers, Dandy Warhols, Orlando Bloom, and practically every other young(ish), mildly progressive artist and actor out there.

Cynics may think celebrities endorsing a good cause such as this may have their eyes on an entirely different kind of green. Yet Global Cool assures us no one is backing this for careerist reasons. They write,
Global Cool is very aware of how tiresome a bunch of rock stars and movie actors can appear when trying to tell the public how to run their lives. The initiative also realises that autocue delivered statements and spoon-fed statistics do not a credible or successful campaign make. Therefore all talent invited to engage in the Global Cool cause have either been on the carbon reduction journey for some time or have recently, and actively, begun this process. All supporters Global Cool will have access to the vast knowledge of our highly skilled Carbon Coaches to monitor and maintain their carbon reduction journeys.
Everybody involved in the running of Global Cool, famous or not, will be making pledges and commitments to change their own carbon lifestyles.
Great stuff! Unfortunately one problem is inadvertently highlighted by KT Tunstall in her “Cooltube” contribution. She says on average each of us emit six tons of carbon a year. She pauses for a moment before admitting production of her records has actually released 620 tons, and that’s before all the flying, TV appearances, press work etc. have been considered! Gievn the sheer quantity she's indirectly responsible for, one imagines it's so much easier to reduce her inflated carbon footprint by one ton than it is for a pensioner. I’m not blaming Tunstall personally, it’s just the insidious manner Global Cool goes about presenting its case that is the issue. When averages are used to present a political case, you can guarantee something is being hidden behind the figures.

Anyone expecting data on the vast amounts of carbon released by the worlds biggest corporations will be disappointed. Amazingly, corporate actors are only mentioned as positive examples of emissions reduction. Bugger the fact business is fundamentally anti-democratic and are accountable only to a tiny band of large share holders. No, Global Cool is blind to the obvious conclusion that it is a relatively small number of industry captains, business leaders and assorted "entrepreneurs" who are the environmental vandals. That there isn't even a nod in this direction is nothing short of scandalous.

This politics-free greenery is reinforced by the content under Be Cool. It suggests we turn our heating down, don't fly, never leave anything on standby, don’t boil too much water, turn out lights, take showers, switch to greener energy, don’t drive, and use better bulbs. The 'science bit' is marginally more ambitious - it says more wind and solar power is needed, and here it comes dangerously close to a little bit of politics. It radically suggests regulation of the economy may be required as high prices are not sufficient to combat the threat. I'm afraid that's as far as it goes as we're informed immediately afterwards this must go hand in hand with the right market framework.

Another intensely irritating feature is the DIY section. You would imagine the long term goal of creating "carbon-neutral citizens" means anyone can get involved and do something constructive. After all, doesn't 'citizen' and citizenship imply active engagement with one's polity? Not for our Global Cool friends it seems. It rather cryptically says it will help support the development of "toolkits", but that's your lot.

Okay, to be fair to Global Cool it doesn't pretend to be anything more than a Noddy's guise to a greener consumerism. But that is not enough. Even if the aim of getting a billion people to reduce their footprint is achieved, capitalism's tendency to undermine the natural basis on which all social systems - including itself - ultimately rest, means at best the Global Cool initiative is glitzy window dressing. To use a well-worn phrase, it is simply not fit for purpose.

Sunday 4 February 2007

Selling the Paper

Many people sneer and decry paper selling activity. I believe when the Socialist Labour Party was set up a battle was had because a number of leading figures thought their party didn’t need one. One is left assuming these characters had the ability to command the headlines of the bourgeois media, otherwise how else was the SLP going to communicate its ideas to the wider public? Did they expect King Arthur to transmit SLP policies with the power of his mind? This was a rare instance sanity prevailed in the organisation and soon its Socialist News came rumbling off the presses.

The point is a paper is an indispensable component of any socialist enterprise, and this is no less true for the Socialist Party. With our papers we can be sure the case for socialism is put across without distortion, without censorship. Websites are essential too but should complement a party paper rather than replace it. After all even in Britain the majority of working class people do not have unimpeded internet access, hence the necessity of taking our politics to the streets.

Our party paper, The Socialist was the topic of the second session in yesterday’s regional meeting. A from Stoke had been invited specifically to address this discussion because of the reputation Stoke Central branch has built in the organisation. For the past 2-and-a-half years we have consistently sold on average well over 100 papers a week. Comrades from the branch are often asked how is it done, while comrades in the branch ask the opposite question – how come most other branches don’t?

A stated there’s nothing particularly unique about our branch. It has the same strengths and weaknesses as others. We don’t have stalls out everyday and nor from a paper selling perspective is there anything special about Stoke. In fact, just 3 years ago the average sale was as low as 12 a week. What is it that we do and how can best practice be generalised to other areas?

The key lies in the culture of the branch, what A terms ‘positive routinism’. That is comrades tend not to approach essential regular branch work as a necessary evil but rather an opportunity to engage with others about our politics. From this flows a willingness to set 100 papers as the minimum target and approach the task with a degree of professionalism. This means making sure we have all the relevant materials, have placards to catch the eye of passers by, plenty of pens and petitions, know the best places to pitch, have at most 2 comrades per stall, and finally not spend the duration chatting with each other at the expense of attracting interest. By consistently going about our activity over a period of time thousands of people will have read and thought about the paper’s contents, and though we haven’t been deluged with new recruits chances are there is a layer among these readers who have been influenced by what we have to say.

A number of comrades offered their opinions from the floor. P observed that setting up a paper is among the first tasks any new section of the CWI engages in. We need a platform to get socialist ideas across and this is the way to do it. He then went on to add that The Socialist needs expanding in the immediate period, with more pages, the introduction of colour, and so on. This requires more people write for the paper; after all it can only ever be as good as its contributors.

Picking up on the effect of the paper, R argued regular sales mean regular readers, so there are a layer of people beyond the party’s ranks ingesting ideas that contest the everyday muck pumped out by the bourgeois media. It provides arguments undermining the BNP’s claim to be the party of the white working class, so in this regard the paper is a useful anti-fascist counterweight.

H suggested every comrade should adopt a critical attitude to the paper. She thought there was not enough humour and not enough worker correspondents submitted material. These are matters that can be rectified by getting more comrades and others to send in reports, articles and reviews.

In summing up A turned to the idea some comrades have of not giving out the paper unless its cost is covered. He observed that if papers go unsold they don’t magically disseminate their message from the comfort of the recycling bin – they need to be in the hands of the audience we’re in the business of creating.

Before I joined the SP I was of the opinion most left organisations, including this one, had a smug superior attitude to their paper. As if it were a holy creed bound in finest leather and decorated with gold leaf. Its sacred status meant no criticism was ever to be uttered about layout and content. Thankfully once I had discussed with comrades and joined this myth quickly fell by the wayside. For socialists the point is we should not only look to opportunities to sell the paper and spread our ideas but also how those ideas are transmitted, and this cannot be done unless every single member relates to party publications critically.

Saturday 3 February 2007

West Midlands Socialist Party Regional Meeting

Yes, that's right, another post on another meeting. Casual readers could be forgiven for thinking I don't do anything but sit in meetings and rush home to blog about them. And those readers would be right ;)

Today's meeting in the shining metropolis of Birmingham was the first Saturday regional get together of West Midland Socialist Party members for aeons. Comrades from around the region descended upon New Street in the morning and cleaned up in papers sold and money raised. Then it was onto the famous United Services Club, Brumland's slightly pokey answer to the capital's Conway Hall and Friends Meeting House.

The assembled came to listen to H, up from the centre, on the organisational challenges facing the party. The second session, on the party paper, its role and how we sell it will be visited in part II of this post tomorrow.

Before she got into the meat of the matter H put our party in political and economic context - the mainstream political monolith around neo-liberal policies, the sporadic but constant attacks on the working class, growth fuelled by debt and so on. H noted these had not provoked mass action by the class because of the drip-drip character of assaults and the inability and unwillingness of most union leaderships to take a lead in opposing them. The struggles against the NHS cuts are typical of this. It seems Unison in particular is hell bent on protecting New Labour, regardless of the cost to its members. In the absence of this lead, generally speaking the class's capacity to think itself as such, recognise its interests and self-organise in pursuit of them remains at historic lows.

This has meant in many ways our party has had to substitute itself for the campaigns that in previous periods would have developed spontaneously. For example, in many parts of the country groups protesting against NHS cuts would not have come into existence if it were not for the lead our party has taken in setting them up. This was certainly the case in Stoke. Unfortunately this has meant our eye has been taken off the organisational ball somewhat. Paper sales, monies raised, cadre development have proceeded well this past year but recruitment and retention has remained more or less at the same level.

The situation cannot continue. A recruitment campaign will be launched at congress in two weeks time (targets subject to the vote). This is not a bureaucratic quick-fix, it means honestly looking at the strengths and weaknesses of our branches, our ways of working, but emphatically not standing back from what we already do. We do pick up members from this activity but this is a by-product of the work, it is not something we consciously set out to do. Therefore we need to be prepared to ask more often, and have a division of labour in place to make the most of the contacts we're in touch with.

Turning to the calibre of members recruited over the last couple of years, H noted many who are coming to us are not raw, but already consider themselves to be socialists and at times repeated visits to discuss matters may be necessary to win these contacts to the organisation. Also on this theme recruiting young people needs to be a pivotal concern - the young are more likely to join and remain members. To borrow H's phrase, if a branch is entirely composed of comrades in their 60s even then youth work needs to be a priority. Her final point was the patient quiet work we do now, recruiting here and there, building our strength in unions and workplaces, will stand us in good stead when mass movements do erupt.

The meeting opened to contributions from the floor. TN argued that the period dating from the collapse of Stalinism has been difficult and our organisation has shrunk, but the organisation itself was maintained and to an extent the party's analysis of the period helped insulate the cadre. Now, with the labour movement in a decrepit state the job facing our party is going out and creating our audience. We should remember why we joined and use these experiences to inform our recruitment practices.

L, as a comparatively new member talked about how discussions and chats were crucial in bringing her to the party. G added that the branch meeting shouldn't necessarily be the first point of contact someone new has with the party - the idea of coming into a room full of strangers tends not to be the most inviting prospect for some. Returning to a theme touched on by other contributors, he admitted the campaigning ground work we do now does put pressures on the organisation but today's spadework means we won't have to organise "everything" in the future, as activists beyond our ranks are developed and the class finds its feet again.

Very often socialists who've been burned by their experience with "the sects" claim they put the narrow interests of the group before the broader interests of the class. I'm sure helpful readers will point out occasions when they think Militant/SP are guilty of this. But now, in 2007, being a member and recruiting to our organisation is to take part in the task of rebuilding the labour movement, and therefore the potential of our class to act. In this case at least, we "have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole".

Thursday 1 February 2007

Branch Meeting: Marxism in Today's World

The subject of our meeting was actually less ambitious than the title suggests. The topic wasn't Marxism in today's world, rather it was Marxism in Today's World, the new book by Socialist Party general secretary, Peter Taaffe. The lead-off was again by me, and again next week we will be returning to the issue of constitutional crisis. Believe me I'm looking forward to taking a break from the hotseat!

Our meeting opened with a report on the NHS campaign. We learned about what friend-of-the-branch, Antony Sumara (former chief executive of the University Hospital of North Staffs) has been upto since assuming his position as head of Hillingdon Primary Care Trust. True to form the axe is out and he plans to cut a workforce of 300 down to 30! His stated aim is to scale back the operation to "core functions", whatever they are. What's interesting is the government claims there is no concerted effort to attack the NHS. Why then has Sumara (a guy who has appeared on platforms with Blair) been shuttled from awkward cuts job to awkward cuts job to awkward cuts job (he has had at least three) if he is not the government's favoured hatchet-man?

The business moved onto technical issues, and heard reports from Socialist Students, the wage cuts at Staffs Uni (upto £7,000 in some cases), yesterday's PCS strike rally, and the work done and future plans on Stoke SP's website.

I spoke for about 20 minutes on the book. It is a very broad text and comrade Taaffe ranges over the key issues facing Marxists today. Enough material is addressed that could inform branch discussions for many a month. In my opinion it is an excellent introduction to a Marxist take on the world in general, and the positions developed by the CWI in particular. I think all comrades, even weary sectarians like myself, would get something out of it. Not because Taaffe is correct on every issue (IMO he isn't) or possesses a uniquely arresting style of writing. No, the book takes the format of a question and answer session with Yurii Colombo, a comrade from an Italian autonomist organisation. This means questions are asked that a hack would never have asked. Issues that wouldn't necessarily get an airing in The Socialist or Socialism Today get discussed here. And yes you leftist trainspotters, that means membership figures ...

My talk briefly touched on each of the chapters. Because of the number of issues, the discussion centred around the processes unfolding within China and the relationship between it and the USA. Here's a lightly edited version of what I said;
Whereas in the past Marxists of whatever theoretical position were confident their theory of the class character of the Chinese state fitted the facts, Taaffe admits things are now a lot more open ended. To force a model on the processes unfolding in China would at best only highlight certain aspects of what are going on, and at worst neglect or pass over evidence to the contrary. What is happening in China is the majority of the working class remain employed by state-owned enterprises, but very often this ownership is obscured by the fact the relationship between these enterprises are no longer mediated by the bureaucratic plan, but by the market. For example, different IT firms compete with one another to secure contracts to supply the burgeoning offices in Beijing and Shanghai but all these firms are state owned. So in a sense China is truly an example of state capitalism – instead of private capital being risked it is capital raised by the state from taxation. At some future point such firms maybe privatised, allowing their directors and assorted bureaucrats to pick them up at knock down prices in a manner akin to what has happened in Russia and elsewhere.

We shouldn’t write off the working class and peasantry. The privatising moves of the Chinese state have provoked massive resistance. Marketisation may mean big profits for the bureaucrats but necessarily entail declining living standards or unemployment for our class. As a result privatisation in agriculture has slowed right down because of rural unrest. However these movements remain widely scattered and the opportunities for them to link up are quite slim. For the working class in the urban centres however, there are greater chances of basic trade union consciousness, and movements for democracy to develop.

Looking at China from an international perspective, the US and China look likely to be the axis around which world politics will increasingly revolve. The USA’s relationship with China is complicated and contradictory – it needs to invest capital there but this will also involve technology transfers, something the US fears a great deal. For US capitalism China’s massive markets requires it be wooed as a strategic partner. But as a military power in its own right starting to flex its muscles, China is a strategic opponent. How this contradiction resolves itself will be one of the key questions of the 21st century.
M responded on the character of peasant and workers' struggles against these unfolding processes, and the Chinese state itself. Matters are complicated by there not being a history of sustained independent trade union activity and the difficulties of organising in a police state. P added to this the role divisions in the working class could play in inhibiting organisation, and be used by the state to defeat struggles. There could be a divide between workers employed in state enterprises, and those who sell their labour power to "privately-owned" firms operating in markets. It is quite possible some within the latter section of our class could develop into a labour aristocracy whose privilege is identified with private ownership, and act as a trojan horse of sorts vis a vis the rest of the class. On the other hand most proletarians are first generation, arriving from the countryside in search of a better life in China's booming cities. Their continued ties to the country combined with living as workers in the city means these sisters and brothers are the literal embodiment of where the peasantry meets the working class. As the experience of the Russian revolution illustrates, this is where an alliance between the two classes will take flesh.

L contributed on China and the contradictions it will become embroiled in as its power approaches a global reach. N suggested one way China is building a strategic bloc of countries favourable to it is by coming in and offering loans without the neo-liberal strings the US likes to attach via the IMF and World Bank. As such its hegemony is being challenged in the traditional "backyard", central and southern America. L came back in on the international dimension contemporary environmental politics entails. As a polluter China is on course to dump more poisons into our environment, but on the other hand as the struggle for resources intensify China could increasingly look toward sustainable development measures to meet its energy needs. Finally A wrapped up by noting whatever happens, China's emergence as a world power guarantees a world system with greater instability. A possible outcome of this could be regionalisation, a decline in the volumes of globalising capital economic crisis; and in China, maybe a partial or total reversion of the restoration process.

The meeting then had to move on. We took a look and a vote on a conference resolution, elected our branch committee and sorted out the week's work. And so, that was our branch this evening.

Stoke PCS Strike Rally

Cave-dwelling lefties may have missed the mass walkout by civil servants today. Over 200,000 workers stayed away from their workplaces, and judging by the reports I've come across the strike has proven to be pretty solid. If there was a crossing of the pickets it was sporadic and in small numbers.

Myself and N went along to the PCS strike meeting in Hanley this lunch time (I was too lazy to head up to the picket lines first thing). Aside from ourselves and the three speakers, 21 other workers turned up from the Magistrates, DWP, Job Centre and probably a few more workplaces I missed.

The meeting opened with Sue Harris, the head of employment rights for the Midland region for Thompson's solicitors. For readers not familiar with Thompson's, this is the legal firm whose relationship to the labour movement goes back over 100 years. She began with a story about her daughter. A couple of months ago she attended the demonstration/TUC lobby of parliament against the swingeing cuts in the NHS. Later, a her daughter's friend asked her who her mum was marching to save the NHS from. She replied the Tories. Sue then had to explain it was actually the Labour government responsible for the worsening situation and privatisation, not just in the NHS but across the public services in general. She expressed amazement at the depths of the cuts and pledged that come what may, Thompson's would back trade union action against them.

John Ellis, PCS branch secretary for West Lancs. and Cheshire was next. He hailed the strike a great success with minimal scabbing, and that's despite his never having come across before a more concerted effort to get people to cross picket lines. In Crewe he encountered four young agency workers who'd come all the way from Nottingham in an attempt to break the strike. Sadly for the bosses on this site, they (along with senior managers) were the only ones to go in. What this indicates is the civil service tops are very worried - such measures are born from desparation. In another example, departmental intranets have been buzzing with management messages encouraging strike-breaking and mealy mouthed pleas for the union to continue negotiations. And yet there is no genuine movement from this direction. John then moved onto the government, arguing "Labour goes where Thatcher feared to tread". But the strike today is start of the fightback. By standing together, and citing a couple of examples of localised struggles, campaigning can work, and the prize is the rolling back of Labour's attacks.

Kim Ellis (chair) invited contributions from the floor. A worker from the DWP spoke first about the baleful effects job cuts have already on her department; in terms of the amount of work expected from remaining staff and the lengthening time benefit clients have to wait for their money. To make matters worse, the savings the job cuts were supposed to have released are being swallowed up by the weekend overtime the department is having to pay out to clear the blacklog of claims!

A worker from the magistrates court chipped in next. He outlined the regional pay plans the treasury have rolled out. What these mean is where workloads are relatively light, salaries will be correspondingly higher than impoverished regions because of the great work load. In Gordon Brown's twisted logic, courts workers should get paid less when they work more. To add insult to injury there's talk now of a 7 YEAR wage freeze for some positions!

Kim came in and talked about the scandal of consultancies. Where the civil service is being chopped to the bone money can always be found to hire costly consultants ... to advise the government on how to improve the civil service! You would think the people best qualified to dispense such advice are those who work in it, day in, day out. She also flagged up Staffs Anti-Cuts Campaign, an informal body attempting to coordinate actions across Staffordshire, and urged everyone present to get involved.

John then summed up. Contrary to media attempts to isolate strikers from the rest of the working class, the projected 100,000 job losses will have an economic impact too. A layer of workers will depend on the custom they bring to thousands of businesses.

One final point, he noted PCS members should not let the media coverage, or lack thereof dishearten them. He was right to make this point. I've seen nothing on BBC TV news as the strike and the re-arrest of Lord Levy have been buried beneath the latest terrorist scare. I leave it up to comrades to decide whether the raids in Birmingham were timed to take these stories off the news agenda.