Monday 20 August 2007

Sparta Techno Party

I'd like to welcome Brother S to AVPS. Like myself, the steel in his Bolshevik soul was forged in foundry of Stoke's titanic class battles. He will be posting his musings on various subjects when he can fit a post in between his Stakhanovite PhD labours and party duties.

To celebrate, here is what my tune of the week would have been if it was out on general release. (Note to Jim D, this definitely does not feature John Rees).

Sunday 12 August 2007

Trip to Manchester

I love leftist exaggeration. Some stirring examples being discussed on Leftist Trainspotters and Urban 75 as I speak.

I was heartened to see the tradition is still alive and well, if this Saturday's demo in defence of asylum seekers in Manchester was anything to go by.

We went up Manchester for the day to spend some much needed quality time with one another. I got ripped off at Drucker's in the Arndale Centre (£17 for a chicken and bacon wrap, a toasted cheese sandwich, a coffee, a coke, a slice of apple pie and chocolate cake with cream!), were pleased to see the utterly vile public urinals have been removed, and was thankful for some proper August weather for a change!

As we were wandering about we happened upon a small demo by asylum seeker campaigners and various others. I was disappointed to see most of the Manc left were absent. It looked as if the Revolutionary Communist Group had a national mobilisation for the event (they had about 10 comrades there), and I spied John Nicholson of Greater Manchester Socialist Alliance fame and a woman who looked like Sheila Rowbotham at a distance, but probably wasn't. I signed some nice old bloke's CND petition against Trident renewal, but sadly the RCG left me alone. Perhaps I looked too bourgeois for them, being white, male, and of working class stock.

Then came the piece de resistance. Once the demo had filed into Albert Square and the speakers assumed their position on John Bright's statue, the speaker thanked the two hundred or so who made it to the demonstration that day. Being a spotterly type, I couldn't help but count the attendees. There was 60. But knowing how these things work, 200 will become the accepted figure. Expect to see it touted in the next Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! and go down in the annals of labour movement lore.

But this guy was an amateur when you compare him with "one of the leaders of the biggest mass movement in British history", brother John Rees of the SWP. This was filmed at this year's Marxism. I'll let him speak for himself (the top stuff's about 2 minutes in)

Friday 10 August 2007

Branch Meeting: Private Armies

Last night at our Socialist Party branch meeting, comrade N led off with the growing employment of private military contractors by the US and UK governments, among others.

Mercenaries, as they're better known, comprise a large chunk of the army of occupation in Iraq. At present there are 360 companies working under US army contracts. Their 180,000 employees outnumber the 120,000 military personnel. Most of these are non-combatants, hired predominantly from Iraqis themselves to play the back room support roles, ranging from doing the laundry to maintaining US trucks, personnel carriers, etc. But of these employees, around a quarter (48,000) are mercenaries.

It's easy to understand why there are so many mercenaries. Typically they can earn $650 a day, sometimes going up as high as $1,000. This is far more than what the regular troops earn, by the way. And they are seeing active service. But given the high price for their "labour power", what's the rationale for their use? One factor is the propaganda war. Around 900 of these have been killed during the course of the occupation, and very conveniently go uncounted in the US military casualty statistics. And then there's the alleged trickle-down. 118,000 of the contractors are Iraqis, therefore it can be argued the infrastructure of the occupation provides them with jobs, which theoretically helps stimulate the local economy (needless to say, they are on a lot less then the fees demanded by the mercenaries). Nevertheless, these contractors have a stake in continuing the occupation.

The use of private armies is the outcome of conscious policy decisions by Bush and his Neo-con coterie. Since 2004, the federal government has spent $750 million on contracts for diplomatic security. One such mercenary firm to have benefited from this bonanza is Blackwater (now the subject of a book and increased scrutiny). Forget your zog-obsessed survivalist militias. This firm owns two military facilities, possesses 20 helicopter gunships, has 21,000 reserves and is currently building the capability to produce its own range of armoured vehicles. All of this is taking place in the middle of the US heartland. It is packed to the gills with former US military and intelligence operatives, and is run by Erik Prince, a Christian fundamentalist, and coincidentally a source of funds for the Republican party.

Before opening the discussion out, N asked whether there were dangers in military outsourcing. After all, you can take the classical Marxist position that the state, the general committee of the ruling class ultimately rest on having the monopoly of violence. The military serves bourgeois interests, so do the likes of Blackwater, Aegis, Dyncorp. Should it make any difference from a socialist point of view?

J came in over the question of political accountability. She suggested it enabled our political masters to put distance between themselves and the more dubious operations mercenaries will undertake at the occupation's behest. She also said that the US government has a pedigree of equipping and funding proxy forces, such as the contras in Nicaragua. Handing out contracts to militarised corporations is just an extension of what's gone before.

M took up the point about statistics. By keeping the number of official troops low, war weariness isn't as likely to reach that critical boiling point. In fact, by employing more mercenaries and getting them to fulfil the role played by regular US and UK forces, the governments can argue that they're actually scaling down the occupation. But also, the contradiction between capital and labour comes into play in a way it doesn't with sovereign armies. If Blackwater contractors are receiving $650 for a day's active duty, how much is the firm creaming off in surplus value?

Because of this, P noted the historical experience of mercenary forces. Armies deployed by nation states tend to be highly regimented and structured fighting machines. Discipline, codes of honour, regimental identity and patriotic fealty combine together to give them a common bond even before they hit the battlefield. The loyalty of mercenaries on the other hand only go as far as their next pay cheque. As their relationship to their superiors is governed by the cash nexus, what's stopping them from leaving if the situation gets too hairy? Therefore the different conditions and the greater material rewards available to them could lead to episodic tensions with regular troops, and contribute to a decline in morale.

A argued that for the reasons outlined above, there would be a certain limit to military contracts. He suggested the German ruling class lost control over the Nazis - their state developed at times complementary, at times distinct interests vis a vis the German bourgeoisie. In this process the military apparatus of the German state came under control of the Nazi party, and as a result led Germany to ruin. The lesson the ruling class have drawn from this experience is to not allow their monopoly on the means of violence be usurped by another force. Therefore it's very unlikely private military firms will play anything other than an auxiliary role.

Summing up N agreed with all these points. He suggested that the clients of these firms won't necessarily stop at states. What's to stop other corporations from offering Blackwater et al contracts to clean up their messes? For instance, no doubt Shell wouldn't be averse to hiring a few platoons to keep their Niger Delta operations secure. Also there are attempts by these firms to have their combatants covered by the same legal protections covering conventional personnel. What this amounts to is yet another bulwark, another fall back position the ruling class could rely on if their grip on power is seriously challenged. Socialists would ignore these developments at their peril.

Wednesday 8 August 2007

Binge 'n' Purge

During AVPS's recent patchy period, the pool of left bloggers has burst its banks and is dribbling its influence all over blogland, so I thought it was time the blogroll reflected this and the few I overlooked first time round.

Onto it I welcome Hak Mao, Grimmerupnorth, Burn the Witches, Labour Left Forum, Ian's Red Blog, Organized Rage, Being Amber Rhea, Labour's Fightback, Stumbling and Mumbling, Through the Scary Door, Modernity Blog, Next Left Notes, Ian Bone, A Femanist View, and Peoples' Republic of Tyneside.

Unfortunately, a few blogs have fallen by the wayside. So it's goodbye to La Femme Contraire, Desperate Kingdoms, Militant, Janine's Blog, Socialist Youth Network, The Pleasures of the Popular, The Revolution Decides, and Whatever Happened to Leon Trotsky.

If any comrades who run these blogs start posting on them again, please let me know and you'll be readmitted to the coveted AVPS blogroll.

I must give a shout out to one blog I view without fail everyday, and that is Obsolete by the mysterious Septic Isle. If fisking the bourgeois media is your bag, check it out. It's a blog that deserves to be on every progressive blogroll.

I haven't had the time to go through the social science and establishment blogs, but both will get the binge 'n' purge treatment soon.

Sunday 5 August 2007

Black Man by Richard Morgan

Black Man is a departure from the recent run of emotionally fraught novels that have come my way. Out goes the carefully drawn characters and the observance of literary sensibilities, and in comes a 500-page avalanche of high power ├╝ber-violence.

Richard Morgan's first novel, Altered Carbon, caused a minor literary flap when it was published in 2002. Its fusion of mindless brutality and cyberpunk somehow captured the post-9/11 sci-fi zeitgeist. Since then, he's spun off two further novels, Broken Angels and Woken Furies, in a sort-of trilogy. All three feature Takeshi Kovacs, a psychopathic Mr Fixit-type commando character (officially entitled an 'Envoy') used by the powers that be to put down rebellions against corporate-owned colonies. All are set several centuries hence and see our anti-hero hunting down ne'er do wells even more despicable than himself. The unique selling point to the novels - the "intellectual" angle if you can call it that, is most people have "stacks" implanted in their necks that record a one's memories, which can then be implanted and downloaded into other "sleeves" (bodies). I suppose this dissociation of identity from the body got some postmodern literary types excited, somewhere.

Black Man differs from the Kovacs novels on two counts. It's set only a century from now. And intellectually, the cyberpunky-Cartesian transcendence of the meat is replaced by a renewed focus on the potentials of the flesh. Carl Marsalis, our anti-hero, is genetically engineered. And this is where the difference between this and Morgan's earlier books end. Marsalis is a psychopathic Mr Fixit-type commando character used by the powers that be to put down rebellions and clean up their messes. Part detective story, part gore fest, Marsalis and Sevgi Ertekin (ex-NYPD and partner) have to hunt down Merrin, another "genengineered" bad boy who turned his transport ship back from Mars into an abattoir. As they close in the protagonists are entangled in the tendrils of a complicated conspiracy, and true to form can only extricate themselves with extreme prejudice and copious violence.

So why am I bothering spending time on something as transparently trashy as Black Man? Well, bizarrely, just like The Amateur Marriage, it can be read as a meditation on masculine crisis. As is usually the case with hardboiled sci-fi, social commentary rests in the premise rather than the playing out of characters' relationships. In Morgan's timeline, the USA one century hence has ceased to exist. The North Eastern and West coast states have ceded from the union, and a Republican-dominated Confederated States of America have arisen. The rump is deregulated, dog-eat-dog, backward, and dominated by Christian fundamentalism. Small wonder the characters dub it Jesusland. By contrast the secessionist states are technologically sophisticated and socially permissive. I can't help the feeling that someone has been taking the last electoral college map of the USA a little too seriously.

The products of the gene technologies at the heart of the novel are crudely gendered. The Variant 13 technology (of which Marsalis is product) created a sub-species of male psychopaths, unencumbered by social solidarity or notions of abstract morality. They really don't give a shit about anyone. Morgan then goes into a flight of fancy about the thirteens being an evolutionary throw back to when we were a hunter/gatherers. But when humans became "feminised" (i.e. settled down into surplus-producing agrarian societies), the prehistoric thirteens lost their evolutionary niche and were bred out of the human gene pool. That was until feminised humanity became too soft to fight its battles and resurrected them to sort out capitalism's pathological violence.

So here we have it - ruthlessness, single mindedness, detachment, sociopathy, are biologically determined masculine traits. As if to underline this, the other main kind of genengineered human frequently mentioned are the bonobos - a subspecies of women genetically manipulated to be submissive, ultra-feminine, and fulfil a man's every sexual desire. Weirdly they hibernate for four months of the year - as if they weren't already enough in thrall to male protection And if that isn't enough, we learn the USA fractured was because the Jesus freaks in the US heartland wanted to reassert Christian-patriarchal values.

Sociological absurdities aside, does Morgan really believe this thesis is a going concern? Is his celebration of the hyper-macho a counter-blast to what he sees as the feminisation of contemporary society? It's hard to say. Black Man is probably his most violent book so far. When Marsalis is not breaking necks and blowing brains out, the dialogue - involving him or not - are nearly always confrontational. The normal human characters tend to be cardboard and interact with one another as if they're all hard men, including the women and the one bonobo who has a speaking part. You could think Morgan's being intelligent here ... except to say stilted characterisation and unintentionally funny-but-menacing dialogue are features of his previous books. That said, complexity tries to get a look-in. Marsalis and his arch nemesis do break their genetic programme and start caring about their female significant others, but gendered simplicity soon reasserts itself. Without giving the game away, the resolution involves lots of guns and buckets of blood.

One for the Andy McNab wannabes I think.

Thursday 2 August 2007

Branch Meeting: Trade Union "Partnerships"

Thursday's Stoke Socialist Party branch meeting was given over to a general overview of trade union backed employee/employer partnerships.

Starting in the present, comrade S noted the theory and practice of partnership has a long pedigree in British industrial relations. Though union leaders, typically but not exclusively on the right of the labour movement, have been openly touting partnership these last couple of decades, its lineage can be traced back to at least the Second World War. The war effort was broadly supported by the bulk of the labour movement, and later acquired a more radical gloss as the official CPGB threw its industrial muscle behind class compromise - thanks to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. The productivity gains were plain to see - Britain consistently out-produced the Nazis through out the war.

Collaboration between management and the shop floor became the foundation stone of the post-war settlement. As Will Hutton noted in his perceptive Keynesian polemic, The State We're In, the union movement may have had a confrontational relationship with management, but this power was, in the main, kept well within the bounds of the system. In the 1947-75 period, capital was prepared to grant concessions to wide scale and diffuse mobilisations around the nuts and bolts of work speed, hours, conditions, and wages. It might have been an inconvenience from the standpoint of the ruling class, but it was better to have the labour movement fighting over crumbs instead of challenging for ownership of the bakery. It was partnership by more militant means.

With the strategic defeats inflicted upon the labour movement in the 80s and early 90s, and the tilting of the balance in forces in favour of capital, partnership rhetoric came increasingly to the fore. Unions increasingly approached employers cap in hand, humbly suggesting unionised workplaces offer bosses industrial peace and productivity gains. On a number of occasions, unions grotesquely competed with each other to see who could offer an employer the most supine sweetheart deal in exchange for recognition.

S then went into the specifics of recognition deals done on employers' terms. Rather than being a counterweight, New Realist unions were capital's helpmate. There was a tendency toward health and safety work, where basically a firm's procedures could be audited without accruing any costs to themselves. Unions' promotions of equal opportunities helped make the workplace a better place for women, BME, migrant, disabled, and LGBT workers, but capital reaped the ideological benefits. Also, the unions' emphasis on training and development, and life-long learning (enthusiastically backed by New Labour) have undoubtedly benefited capital as a whole by displacing the cost of retraining from employers onto the labour movement. And of course, often acted as unpaid consultants offering suggestions in saving money or increasing production.

Have the unions themselves got much out of this arrangement? It could be argued in the context of the 90s that partnership was the only realistic way of getting your foot in the door. That at least a union presence meant a new generation of union activists could be trained up, and the falling subscription base stymied. But at what cost to workers themselves?

M came in with her own experience on the pot banks in the early 90s. When new machinery was introduced that meant her job could be done in 20% less time, the firm decided the workers would receive a 20% wage cut. CATU (now Unity) was called in, and from the shop floor the rep could be seen having a laugh over tea and biscuits in management's office. He then emerged and said he'd negotiated the cut down to 15%, saying it was all he could do. There was no suggestion the workers should fight. A recalled trying to work with CATU in the same period. He remembered the bureaucracy were very keen on partnership, and as a result they saw themselves as a re-skilling agency rather than an organisation set up to defend workers jobs. CATU's fate is instructive. Partnership gave them a tiny, atomised subscription base that keeps the wagon on the road, and for Stoke-on-Trent, skilled and comparatively well-paid potters jobs have been exported overseas.

Inevitably, the discussion moved on to the postal dispute. A and J both the CWU leadership have long accepted the existence of a postal market and the need for the post office to "modernise" itself along neo-liberal lines; so already the strategy the union's pursuing is half-hobbled. A feared a section of the bureaucracy could capitulate if management so much as dangled the possibility of talks. For instance, the current phase of rolling action puts some workers in the awkward position of having to handle scab mail, or having to cross picket lines. Though you can see the intention of maximising the impact of action, taking workers out sectionally can lead to unofficial action (as has been seen in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen), and/or confusion and demoralisation. A couldn't get away from the sneaking suspicion that this is why a section of the bureaucracy supported this move.

In summing up his lead off, S argued that ultimately, employee/employer partnerships are a pipe dream. The class struggle in capitalist society is ultimately over the disposal of surplus value generated by not paying workers the full value of their labour. The position of capital and labour are irreconcilable. Union bureaucracies do however have a material interest in negotiating the best possible price (in theory) for their members' labour power, so they owe their position to being mediators between the two antagonistic poles. Partnership therefore is the expression of their material existence in the realm of ideas. In the postwar period it delivered real benefits to workers. Now, when capitalism is red in tooth and claw, partnership is a recipe for reformism without reforms.