Saturday 31 January 2009

British Jobs for British Workers?

Unsurprisingly the spreading wildcat strikes have sparked off wide-ranging debate on the left. The flurry of commentary from left-wing party websites, blogs, forums and so on represents a serious attempt to come to grips with a spontaneous outbreak of militancy unseen in Britain for many years. Well, at least it does for some. Pathetically, on Socialist Unity, some have interpreted the SWP's statement through the sectarian prism of it distancing itself from George Galloway's and Jerry Hicks's positions. According to its monomaniacal critics, we are to believe a settling of scores with Respect is the primary concern of the SWP as it seeks to make sense of an important workers' mobilisation.

The flip-side position has been an ultra-left denunciation of the strikes as the actions of "racist morons". Galloway and Hicks, the
Socialist Party, SSP, the Morning Star and everyone else who - correctly in my view - have realised the importance of the class dynamic behind the nationalist slogans, are denounced for "pandering to reaction". Safe to say we won't see any of their ilk going anywhere near the picket lines and protests, which is just as well seeing as they're more likely to do the socialist cause more harm than good.

If the debate is not to become a sectarian slugfest we need to bring out the points that are not under dispute.

* Everyone agrees the adopted slogan, 'British Jobs for British Workers', is chauvinist and divisive. No socialist can raise such a slogan and remain a socialist.

* The trade unions concerned (
Unite-Amicus and the GMB) have not combated the nationalist sentiment. Indeed, footage and photos of mass meetings show that among the home made placards are union-branded boards and signs with BJ4BW slogans on them.

* That the BNP see it as an opportunity to spread their poison.

* When socialists visit the picket lines, regardless of affiliation, all will be united in arguing more or less the same thing. That is the Italian and Portuguese workers are not to blame for the situation; that Total are attempting to undermine the agreements it has with the recognised trade unions by contracting out the work to firms whose staff are not covered by these arrangements, that management's "right" to manage has to be challenged, that links should be forged with the IREM work force, and are will be agitating for unity among workers of different nationalities.

The main point of contention is whether the left can support these strikes.

The SWP and those close to it say no. The comrades argue, rightly, that a divided work force is a weakened work force. The only beneficiaries of division are the bosses, which is why 'BJ4BW' is wrong-headed and potentially dangerous. But they go on, "Those who urge on these strikes are playing with fire ... We all know what will happen if the idea spreads that it’s foreigners, or immigrants or black or Asian people who are to blame for the crisis. It will be a disaster for the whole working class, will encourage every racist and fascist and make it easier for the bosses to ram through pay and job cuts."

This is a principled position, but is also a mistaken position. The SWP statement, in my opinion, gives too much weight to the nationalist slogans being advanced and pays insufficient attention to the contradictions of the protests. As much as the left would wish it wasn't so, we should not be too surprised that the first significant spontaneous class mobilisation after the collapse of the "boom" years is of a nationalist character.

Since the titanic class battles of the 1980s capital has held the whip hand over the working class. Our organisations - the trade unions, the
Labour party, the far left - still bear the scars of these defeats. The unions and the far left carry much less social weight, and Labour has capitulated almost completely to capital to the extent that there is little qualitative difference between it and the Tories and Lib Dems. Meanwhile successive governments and capital have restructured the British economy without any real significant opposition. The service industries that have grown as manufacturing has declined are much less secure, lower paid and atomising. The idea the working class has separate material and political interests to the bosses has little purchase any more.

Because our class has been unable to cast much of a shadow over mainstream politics, in its weakened state it has been more prey to reactionary ideas. Day after day the bulk of the press have churned out the most disgusting lies - that immigrants take the lion share of the jobs, that asylum seekers are living luxurious lifestyles on benefits, that Muslims conspire to make Britain an Islamic state, that British sovereignty has been usurped by the Germans and French, and that ZaNuLabore want to dismantle the nation. Even worse the main parties have fallen over themselves, to varying degrees, to accommodate these views. This has created a favourable climate for backward views in our class. A tiny minority have turned to support the BNP at election time (in fact, given the political climate, it's a sign of their incompetence that the fascists aren't doing better) but mostly it has fed back into the atomisation of the class, resulting in apathy, fatalism, and the further decomposition of working class organisation.

The BJ4BW slogan raised by the unions is dangerous, but it tapped into a commonplace sentiment among workers. The unions thought they could ride the nationalist tiger in pursuit of commonplace trade union objectives, but ended up sparking off wildcat actions they could not have foreseen. This is where the main contradiction in the mobilisation is located - the majority of workers are motivated by British chauvinism, but their protest has seen them take up the traditional weapons of working class militancy. The two, nationalism and independent working class activity, cannot coexist indefinitely. If the strikes resume and spread at the start of next week, it is the job of socialists to intervene with our arguments and bring the contradiction to a head to try and resolve it in a positive direction.

But because these are strikes, they can be won or lost. Socialists cannot be indifferent to the outcome. If we turn up on the picket line and at best appear equivocal, or at worst, opposed to the strike, we will have a hard time getting the ear of workers (in the SP's case, this is at least aided by having a member on the Lindsey refinery strike committee). We cannot fudge this. In my opinion socialists should favour the strikers' victory. Aside from defeating the union-busting issues underlying the dispute, it will demonstrate to millions that militancy works, that workers can take action and win. Yes, assuming hundreds of workers aren't converted to internationalism overnight, nationalist attitudes will persist and might be strengthened, but the impact on working class confidence will be an order of magnitude greater.

Friday 30 January 2009

Lukacs and the Revolutionary Party

We saw in the last post on History and Class Consciousness that Lukacs strongly made the case for socialism as the conscious and coordinated effort of the working class before and after the revolution that finally puts pay to capitalism. In the final essay of the book, 'Towards a Methodology of the Problem of Organisation', Lukacs turns his attention to the revolutionary party, the organisational expression of proletarian class consciousness and the main political weapon it has in its struggle against capital.

Previous discussions saw Lukacs argue that the advent of capitalism means that philosophy beginning from the standpoint of the individual inevitably reproduces, in thought, the structural relationship individual capitalists have with the rest of society. Philosophical investigations that persist from this basis can only offer
partial explanations of the world, and these in turn clash with similarly one-sided perspectives. How Marxism differs is that as the theoretical condensation of the collective experience of the working class, it is able to produce a coherent account of capitalism in its totality. The philosophy of the individual subject has now outlived its theoretical usefulness. But it is not enough that the correct theory exists. Marxism is more than a scholarly enterprise, it is a means of understanding society so it can be changed by the working class. There has to be a fusion of Marxist ideas and proletarian practice - this is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for overthrowing capitalism. But this does not happen by itself. This requires an organisational medium that infuses Marxism into the working class to the degree that makes the positive transcendence of capitalism possible - the unity of theory and practice on a mass scale is possible only through the revolutionary party.

Even when a revolutionary party has not won a majority (or even a respectable-sized minority, as is the case in most parts of the world), it still performs a mediating function. The party needs to pay the utmost attention to the DNA of theory and practice - the dialectic fusing the lessons of the past with the demands of the present to realise its objective. The resulting actions can never be smooth, but they have direction, and if the party's perspectives are right, the result will be the gaining of ground in the class from which further advances can be made. Therefore the party requires a culture that can generalise its experiences and the lessons its activists have learned throughout its ranks. The unimpeded circulation of criticism and discussion among the various levels of the party is the precondition for a self-critical party. Without this there can be an internal narrative that explains reverses in terms of "objective conditions", which suggests a slide toward fatalism. Or, alternatively, a voluntarist note can be taken by describing mistakes solely in terms of the acts of certain individuals. In either scenario the party does not learn from its practice.

Engels was fond of saying that the proof of the pudding can be found in the eating. Likewise for Lukacs, theoretical errors can be corrected through practice - this is ultimately the criterion of the veracity of any theory. For that reason, what Lukacs calls opportunist theory completely neglects practice. The last thing it wants to do is set up a position offering an internal critique of its ideas. This is why social democratic and labour parties have tended to have a liberal tolerance of the circulation of ideas within its ranks. But as is the case in any political party, active members tend to coalesce around sets of ideas, which then become expressed organisationally in terms of internal factions, pressure groups and networks of paper sellers. For Lukacs, in a vast body such as the
Second International, the old workers' parties had to balance these internal divisions with the demands of the apparatus, the politicians and their trade union affiliates and supporters. Therefore when these parties did take a position, they were a fudge that upset nobody while ensuring the party was not committed to a line of action other than routine electioneering. In this organisational environment it's small wonder that where Marxism was its official creed, it was gutted of any revolutionary content. It was a totem that could be wheeled out on occasion to give the latest policy a militant gloss while acting as the ultimate guarantor of socialism's inevitability.

critique of Luxemburg saw him drive this point home. Socialism can only ever be the result of the working class becoming conscious of itself as a force in history with its own interests and destiny that points to a future beyond capitalism. It goes from an object buffeted about by historical process to the subject of history that can bend it to its will. Marx described this movement as a leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom. But just what is the nature of this freedom that comes with the growing maturation of socialist society? It is not the same as the individual freedom relentlessly reified by capitalism. As Lukacs puts it "this 'freedom' which isolated individuals may acquire thanks to their position in society or their inner constitution regardless of what happens to others means then in practice that the unfree structure of contemporary society will be perpetuated in so far as it depends on the individual" (1968, p.315). To demonstrate how bourgeois freedom rests on fundamental unfreedom, consider how even a modest mainstream lifestyle in 21st century Britain depends heavily on cheap commodities, which in turn are made possible through the super exploitation of workers in the global south.

Lukacs is very clear on this point. The struggle for freedom requires the renunciation of individual freedom and the subordination of the individual to the collective will of the party. This is because if the party is to be the weapon it needs to be in the struggle for socialism, any sort of collective decision-making is possible only if it is a disciplined organisation. If Marxists organise along individualist lines this then is a recipe for a discussion circle. Concerted action would be the exception, not the rule. The revolutionary party, therefore, is a qualitatively different beast to bourgeois, petit bourgeois and bourgeois workers' parties. The greater demands it makes of its members, if even only a paper principle, emphasises over and over again that progressive outcomes in the class struggle depend on conscious action. It is a practical way of reinforcing in the minds of its members that socialist society will not happen by itself.

The disciplinary character of communist organisation has, for the first time in history, provided the means for reconciling the individual and class consciousness - "the active and practical side of class consciousness
directly influences the specific actions of every individual, and secondly, at the same time it consciously helps to determine the historical process" (p.318). The revolutionary party therefore locks in the mediation between the individual and history. Because they are looser organisations, the parties of other classes and class fractions have a greater degree of apparatus autonomy from the variegated membership. They are not capable of performing a mediating function in the same way as their socialist counterparts and as such tend not to make history, but rather, at best, react to it. The political freedom that exists in bourgeois parties - the freedom of ideas, the non-binding leadership decisions, the absence of a party line - is the sort of reified individual freedom that allows bourgeois politics as usual. Such a structure is totally unsuited for organising the working class as a political party.

Returning now to the question of the organisational separation of the revolutionary party from other political formations, to quote what was said previously on this; "Lenin and the Communist International insisted upon the organisational independence of revolutionaries to better contest for the leadership of the working class." This separation which, it must be emphasised, is
not the same thing as separating the party from the mass of the class, gives it the political freedom to put forward the formulations and demands it thinks will advance the building of class consciousness. But independence is not a guarantor of the party's revolutionary character. The danger of sectarian degeneration is ever present if it does not seek to relate to the class as a whole, including its most backward sections. A party is effectively a sect when it opposes "true" consciousness (i.e. what, in its eyes, the working class should be like) to the really existing working class, which is always going to fall short of these purer than pure expectations.
If the class consciousness of the proletariat viewed as a function of the thought and action of the class as a whole is something organic and in a state of constant flux, then this must be reflected in the organised form of that class consciousness, namely in the communist party. With the single reservation that what has become objectivised here is a higher stage of consciousness (p.328).
For sects generally, but also infant revolutionary organisations, there is a tendency to direct its efforts outwards at the expense of its internal life (why debate with other members when there are papers to be sold and workplaces to be leafleted?) But if an organisation is to be a party and not a sect a balance has to be struck between the two. Centralisation of party structures should not be a bureaucratic exercise - it needs to be fed by and encourage a culture of constant tactical innovation so it can effect the class, and in turn be conditioned by it. The handing down of a line from on high and have it mechanically enforced with appeals to party discipline is the hallmark of an organisation either drifting away or abandoning the field of revolutionary politics, despite whatever formal positions it may hold.

Revolutionary parties operate in a capitalist society. Despite its organisational independence, its consistent work among the working class, and guidance by the most advanced social theory possible, none of these will forever and finally inoculate revolutionaries from bourgeois pathologies, and the most pernicious of these is reification. The party must contend with ideological manifestations of reification, in particular, critiquing ideas that offer individual way outs of capitalist misery, be they political, religious/spiritual, life-stylist, etc. But unfortunately because reification is a
process and not a condition the struggle against it will last as long as capitalism. It therefore cannot but leek into the party from time to time to varying degrees, producing inside it instrumental-bureaucratic, rigid, and dogmatic tendencies. The best way to mitigate its effects, apart from waging the battle of ideas is "to draw together all the party members and ... involve them in activity on behalf of the party with the whole of their personality. A man's function in the party must not be seen as an office whose duties can be performed conscientiously and devotedly but only as official duties; on the contrary, the activity of every member must extend to every possible kind of party work. Moreover this activity must be varied in accordance with what work is available so that party members enter with their whole personalities into a living relationship with the whole of the life of the party and of the revolution so that they cease to be mere specialists necessarily exposed to the danger of ossification" (pp.335-6).

No one can pretend the demands of party organisation aren't considerable. The struggle commands the physical and moral existences of its adherents, be they rank-and-file or leaders. The political purpose of the party therefore calls into being a new relationship between "leaders" and "led". Because all members take part in a range of activities and united by the common purpose, the party's self-correction mechanisms (i.e. freedom of discussion) has no time for a culture of deference and kow-towing. The expectation that members should become involved in all aspects of party work requires members have a
critical attitude toward all the actions the party undertakes, up to and including the leadership. The closer the relationship between leaders and other full-time cadres is with lay members, the better the dialectic between individual and class consciousness, and party and class, operates. The more isolated leading cadres are the more likely they are to fall into the reified outlook of the 'traditional' party leader, one which views "their" members as passive onlookers to be manipulated and directed on a whim. The flip side of this is an inculcation of a fundamental indifference toward the leadership, one which manifests itself as apathy, or (often embarrassingly) blind trust. Criticism, if it is permitted at all, may get an airing at the annual congress, be after the fact, and will have little, if any, effect on the party's overall direction.

In sum, Lukacs has demonstrated how party organisation is a political, not a technical question. How the party develops and reproduces its structures depends on constantly and consistently working within the working class, building up its experience, diffusing lessons among its ranks, informing its analysis, formulating strategies for further interventions, and so on. It's not surprising organisations who exalt their shibboleths or flip-flop from opportunism to ultra-leftism are brittle and riddled with the problems Lukacs identifies above. They are in error because for whatever
political reason the organisation's cycle of revolutionary praxis has seized up, that's if it ever began in the first place.

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

Thursday 29 January 2009

A 'Racist' Strike?

Hundreds walk out of their workplace. On the second day the strike spreads, pulling up to a thousand workers out on secondary action across sites in Northern England and Scotland - much of it illegal under the anti-trade union laws Labour has, to its eternal shame, left on the statute books. In short, an outbreak of the very 'spontaneous' actions of our class that would normally excite the left in this country. Except there appears, at first glance, a racist fly in the militant soup.

According to the
BBC, on Wednesday the Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire awarded a portion of a £300 million construction project to an Italian firm, which, going from the reports, will be using Italian and Portuguese workers. At a time of rising unemployment you can understand why the local union, Unite, and many of the workers are angry about this development. Quoted on the BBC, Unite's Bernard McAuley says "there are men here whose fathers and uncles... built this refinery from scratch. It's outrageous."

But, somewhat surprisingly, it is left to the
Daily Star(!) to show this dispute is about class, not race. An anonymous scaffolder tells the soaraway Star “we need to make a stand now. This is not a racist protest. I’m happy to work hand-in-hand with foreign workers, but we are not getting a look in. There are guys at this site who had been banking on that work and then it gets handed to an Italian firm. It’s about fairness.” No doubt some of these workers will have attitudes a lot less enlightened than the chap above.

British bosses are past masters at using race, ethnicity and nationality to divide and conquer both at home and abroad in their former colonial possessions. Drafting in migrant labour from overseas is a tried and tested method of undermining the pay and conditions of workers. Turning on the workers who come in to take advantage of employment opportunities plays directly into the bosses' hands - it obscures the fact it is they who are attacking and driving down wages, and therefore the responsibility lies with them. Unsurprisingly, the mainstream of the labour movement has a less then spotless record when it comes to this. For example, while in the North West the T&G arm of Unite have done some good work amongst Polish workers, trade unions as a whole have done little to combat knee-jerk xenophobia of this type.

When the bosses divide our class along the lines of race and nation, we are weaker. Instead of capitulating to the anti-immigrant sentiment fanned by the gutter press, unions must demand legislation that prevents employers from taking on workers at below the basic rates of its workforce. Unfortunately, as this appears to be beyond the political imagination of many a trade union leader, it falls to the small and scattered forces of the left to make this case at the refinery gates.

Edit: Now also published at Socialist Unity .

Tuesday 27 January 2009

Filipinas and Catholicism in Israel

It's high time some sociology was written about around here! Today's lunch time sociology seminar at Keele heard from Claudia Liebelt with her paper, 'The Mama Mary of the White City's Black Underside: Reflections on the Filipina 'Block Rosary Crusade' in Tel Aviv, Israel'. This was an exploration of religion and identity in the growing Filipina domestic worker community in Israel (the majority of whom are young women). Claudia spent several months with these women documenting their lives, daily rituals and practices.

The diaspora of Philippine nationals is somewhere around the eight million mark, and is scattered all over the globe. The majority are female and a good proportion of them are well educated, but they tend not to fill highly skilled occupations. Instead the fall into low-waged work that is often insecure and can involve their abuse by unscrupulous employers. In Israel underpayment, passport confiscation, and harassment by immigration officials along with gruelling workloads is the lot of many Filipina migrants. But they are not passive vessels content to let the daily grind wash over them. They have developed strategies of coping and resistance, which, for the group studied by Claudia, was very heavily coloured by religious belief.

The Philippines were ruled by Spain from the mid 1560s to 1898, when it was ceded to the USA after its defeat in the Spanish-American war. Over the 300 year period the archipelago was drawn under a unitary authority and was more roundly developed than Spain's other colonial possessions. Waves of missionaries were drawn to the islands, who in their turn established a network of educational and medical institutions. This way Catholicism was able to strike down very deep roots - today some 81 per cent still list that as their religious affiliation (according to the
CIA World Factbook), which is remarkable considering Islam reached those shores three centuries prior to Magellan's expedition.

Many commonplace religious practices are not necessarily 'officially' sanctified, which is the case with the
block rosaries. For the group studied here, this was the primary manifestation of their belief. The workers live in the southern districts of Tel Aviv, typically in three-room flats occupied by up to 10 people (this overcrowding is relieved only by workers spending much of their weeks at the employers' homes). Their statuette of the Virgin Mary ("Mama Mary") travels from home to home, taking with it the block rosary prayer meet. The meets themselves are very crowded affairs. Upwards of 25 people can show up. When they enter, they pay their respects to Mama Mary, who is now placed prominently on a home made altar alongside other iconography and paraphernalia. Once everyone has entered the meeting and settled down, the prayers begin. Typically they pray for their families, the health of their employers, safe travel, and the overcoming of their problems and difficulties. The prayer leader then reads an extract from a holy text, passes around the rosary beads, and follows this with a reading from the lives of Mary and Jesus. And it proceeds over and over again, finally ending with a farewell prayer to Mama Mary. Now the prayers are over the workers can help themselves to the generous buffet and share news and gossip. The leader of the group has a link to the community of Catholics in Tel Aviv, and shares parish news and upcoming events.

As befitting an icon, a certain life is attributed to Mama Mary. Ever since the statue was acquired by the group (September 2007 on), her "moods" have been the subject of group speculation. For example, on one occasion 'Gina' dropped the statue and broke something on its leg. Afterwards she herself experienced leg pains until it was fixed. Likewise miracles are acknowledged as the work of Mama Mary. One woman who had spent seven years in Israel had been having trouble with her daughter, who remained behind. She had sent back $1,000 payable to a recruiter who was going to find her daughter work overseas. However, once the money had been handed over the daughter had changed her mind, having fallen in love with a local boy. She prayed to Mama Mary that she would again change her mind and agree to work in Italy and, on this occasion, her prayer came true. As thanks she gave the statue an embroidered coat that it would wear during its procession through Tel Aviv's neighbourhoods.

For those familiar with
Philippine processions as busy evangelising affairs may be surprised to find their analogues in Tel Aviv are just the opposite. The procession from one flat to the next is low key and eschews attention, preferring to stick to the dark back alleys of the city (if the next destination is beyond walking distance, or, the weather isn't suitable, then it will take a minibus). In one sense, in their eyes these processional activities sacralise their urban space, one which many of them liken to the latter day Gomorrah in the Holy Land. But the main effect is inward, on the members of the block rosary themselves.

The Filipina workers are from all corners of the Philippines, but what they do have in common from the outset is their religious belief and gender. Mama Mary gives them a focus to gather around, a means of tying together their disparate experiences, and form a solidarity against what could otherwise be an atomised existence. Hosting Mama Mary is a privilege as it blesses the home and the hosts it resides in, but more than that it is also an icon underwritten by nostalgia - prayer meetings offer an opportunity to
collectively reflect on the homes and families left behind, which is assisted by the food made available at the buffets. It provides a meaning for being in Israel beyond the need for money and confers a religious value on their care-giving work - as Mama Mary looks after and pities the women, so they too pity their charges, at the same time viewing their work as a sacrifice of their youth so others may benefit. Indeed, it can be read as a way of transmitting patriarchal values in a social space inhabited solely by women.

As far as I was concerned, this type of study shows how useful sociology can be for those of us involved in socialist politics. As a case study it has its own set of unique properties, but there are generalities that can be distinguished that are common to most migrant groups - namely the importance attached to a particular set of rituals and practices that confirms the validity of their selves to themselves, and generates a sense of "we-ness" that gives them the strengths to face the challenge of the social contexts confronting them. These solidarities do not necessarily have to be religious, but in most cases of migrant populations in Western Europe, they have tended to assume that character. If socialists want to work with and influence these groups then it must be done with tact and sensitivity.

Monday 26 January 2009

Iceland Heats Up

This report comes from Per-Åke Westerlund of Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna, the Swedish section of the CWI (at present the CWI does not have an Icelandic affiliate). The BBC and Channel Four reporting of what is happening is nothing short of shameful. You'd be forgiven for thinking that the ruling Independence Party/Social Democrat coalition resigned simply because they felt guilt over their reckless economic policies. In fact, what Per-Åke reports on is a crisis not seen in Western Europe since the late 1960s. With the media chattering this last weekend about 'Reykjavik-on-Thames', could it happen here?
Iceland: Devastated by Global Crisis
A few days of demonstrations, including protesters throwing eggs being met by riot police with teargas, have been enough to force a new election in Iceland. The mass protests in what is, to date, the worst hit country in the global economic crisis, have been referred to as a revolution – a ’fleece’, ’facebook’, or ’saucepan’ revolution. Among those who have come onto the streets, there are discussions about the need for a new political force.

On Monday 26 January, the government handed in its resignation. This was clearly an attempt to defuse the protest movement. So was the proposal from resigning PM
Geir Haarde of a "national unity government".

It is only three months ago, in early October, that Iceland went from being the fifth richest country in the world – based on GDP per capita – to experiencing the worst crisis of all countries, so far. The super-indebted Icelandic banks were nationalised in an attempt to limit the crisis. Today, 70 per cent of all companies and 40 per cent of households are technically bankrupt. GDP is expected to drop 10 per cent this year. Unemployment increased from six to nine per cent in December alone, inflation is close to 20 per cent, while interest rates are 18 per cent. The currency, the Icelandic krona, is hardly exchangeable.
Demonstrations of anger bring down government
There is a widespread hatred against the bankers who orchestrated the crisis and their friends, the politicians. While the top bankers seem to have left the country, however, the politicians remained in power. This changed last week.

From Tuesday, 20 January, when parliament restarted after the holidays, daily protests were organised. The main slogan was "incompetent government" and the demand was for new elections. Most people brought cooking pans and other improvised objects to drum on.

Last Wednesday, the protest took place outside a meeting held by the Social Democratic Alliance, a junior partner in the coalition government, demanding that the SDA resign. Later the same night, protesters surrounded the limousine of Prime Minister Geir Haarde, knocking on the car roof and throwing eggs and drink cans. Riot police were used to defend Haarde, who is also leader of the Independence Party. At that stage, he still ruled out any elections before those scheduled for two years’ time in 2011.

In protests late at night on Thursday, stones were thrown at the police, with two policemen injured. The police used teargas and pepper spray and 20 people were arrested in the first major attack on a demonstration since 1949, when Icelanders demonstrated against NATO membership. It has been reported that the government of Iceland, which has only a handful of soldiers, was considering calling in Norwegian forces.

The Icelandic website,
Ice News, quoted one of the protesters:

"No one has resigned and no one has been fired. They are hard at work at getting what little is left here back into the hands of those who crashed our economy to begin with.

”The people here are afraid and at the mercy of ruthless criminals that have feathered their nests not only in our government, but also in the businesses and banks. These banks were given to them through a fake privatisation in 2005, they have literally done nothing but spend money since; now it´s all gone, and you want to give them more?".

The protester referred to the demand of the demonstrators that money promised from the IMF and governments should not be paid out to the present government. In total, ten billion US dollars has been promised in "rescue packages". The IMF deal includes severe demands for budget cuts and high interest rates, both measures that will deepen the crisis.
New elections
On Friday, Prime Minister Haarde suddenly declared new elections for 9 May. At the same press conference, he announced his resignation as leader of the Independence Party, revealing that he has cancer. Already, the leader of the Social Democratic Party, Foreign Minister Ingibjorg Solrun Gisladottir, is being treated for cancer. The following day, Minister of Commerce, Bjorgvin Sigurdsson, resigned at the same time as he sacked the boss of the state authority responsible for financial supervision.

These announcements, however, did not break the momentum of the protests. On Saturday, over 6,000 people gathered, demanding the government resign immediately.

"We will not allow more crap. The government must go. We've had enough of them controlling everything, just taking care of themselves and not caring at all for the people", said one of the speakers, Jakobina Olafsdóttir, to great cheers from the crowd. The Swedish daily,
Dagens Nyheter, continued its report: "She and others in Iceland want to see a new society, without the cronyism and corruption they believe is prevalent and without the for so long so mighty Independence Party."

The same article continues: "Different protest movements have mushroomed. With the help of Facebook". [Ninety six per cent of 20-29 year-olds are on Facebook.] "They quickly gather thousands of supporters and can easily call meetings. Now, there are discussions between the different movements to form a common manifesto for a new society."

In opinion polls the opposition
Left-Green Movement has doubled since the last election two years ago, to 32.6 per cent. The two governing parties have lost a combined 22 per cent. The Independence Party’s ratings have fallen to 22.1 per cent and the Social Democratic Alliance to 19.2 per cent. A previous partner of the Independence Party, the Progressive Party, has also increased in opposition, from 11.7 to 16.8 per cent.

This is a clear indication that people are looking for a more radical alternative. The Left-Greens are seen as the most anti-capitalist party, previously profiling themselves mostly on environmental issues. For example, the party advocates nationalisation of all natural resources. The Left-Greens also stand for re-negotiations on the IMF deal and for Iceland to leave NATO. Opinion in favour of joining the European Union, which surged when the currency collapsed last year, has already started to dwindle. Today, 38 per cent want to join, compared to over 50 per cent in October. Many have understood that foreign aid will not come without strings.
The mass demonstrations in Iceland, like recent protests in other European countries, show the willingness of people to try and take control over their own lives. They no longer trust politicians or capitalists. At the demonstrations in Reykjavik, the boss of the Central Bank, David Oddsson, a previous prime minister, has been compared to Adolf Hitler!

It is clear that the protesters have had enough and that they are representative of the generally-held feelings in Iceland. This has given rise to a lot of discussion about whether what is happening is a revolution.

“The word ‘revolution’ might sound a bit of an overstatement, but given the calm temperament that usually prevails in Icelandic politics, the unfolding events represent, at the very least, a revolution in political activism", Icelander Eirkur Bergmann wrote in the British paper,
The Guardian.

Another recent visitor to Iceland, London School of Economics professor Robert Wade, commented, "The situation is very tense and very unstable". He compared the situation with other sometimes-violent street demonstrations in Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Greece over the last month.

A third commentator, Fredrik Erixon of the Brussels-based European Centre for International Political Economy, said the situation was reminiscent of "the French Revolution of 1789", rather than that of 1968. The anger is certainly there, but capitalist Iceland is far different from feudal France.

The lesson from mass movements in other countries in recent years is that unpopular regimes can be overthrown. But to alter the economic and political conditions in society the working class and its allies need their own party with a programme for socialist change.

In Iceland there will be a concerted campaign from national and global capital to submit to the IMF conditions, including economic blackmail. Any government that is not prepared to challenge the capitalists who have caused the crisis will come under enormous pressure to make huge cuts in living standards for working people. This is the case even if a Left-Green government is established, or a government of "experts", as some of the protesters have proposed.

Workers and youth in Iceland have already drawn important conclusions. New experiences will force them to look hard for alternatives. Transforming the situation in Iceland would need a fully socialist programme of nationalisation of all major parts of the economy, under democratic workers’ control and management. The crisis has shown that bankers, capitalists and today's top politicians are not wanted; democratically elected organisations of workers, youth, pensioners could run society without them. The beginnings of a movement against capitalism in Iceland must be welcomed and encouraged by workers and activists internationally. This is just the first indication of what is to come as more and more countries fall into recession and mass revolt begins to develop.

Flickr images from the protests can be viewed

Sunday 25 January 2009

Who'd Want to be a Millionaire?

The dispute at the Morning Star is getting increasingly unseemly. The NUJ chapel have threatened a strike ballot over wages, claiming the paper's management has reneged on promises made in previous years. What sticks in its craw is the £500 grand that is likely to be invested in the 'Star. It seems the money is to be ring-fenced to improve content, hire more staff, and increase circulation. None of it will be set aside to raise journalist salaries, which needless to say, is well below the industry standard.

The consortium behind the £500,000 is anonymous, but it doesn't take a seasoned left-watcher to realise the bulk of the monies will be coming from
Anita Halpin, the NUJ and CPB stalwart. Readers will recall that sister Halpin was in receipt of £20.5 million after auctioning a painting her family were forced to give up by the Nazis. CPB comrades and 'Star supporters have had to wait until now before seeing a slice of her fortune (though the CPB did get a nine grand crumb last year).

Some comrades have been on their high horses, arguing that if she was any sort of communist she would make the monies available to the party she is a leading member of. This got me thinking. If any of us stumbled on £20 million cash in the attic, what would we do? Then I thought this might be a nice idea for a meme. So, what would you do if you came into a similarly-sized lump of dosh? I would

1) Make sure the
Socialist Party and CWI get a hefty sum, no strings attached (well, maybe with the proviso that Stoke gets a full-timer :P).

2) Give my family a nice slice too.

3) Finish my PhD, but would probably pursue a career as an activist and blogger. Or maybe a bookshop owner - I've always fancied the idea of opening a radical bookshop in the centre of Hanley.

4) Draft in a professional web designer to make this blog really sparkle.

5) Set up a fund that would help finance strikes and other progressive causes.

6) Put aside a bit of cash to help cover
Morning Star journalists' wage demands.

7) Buy a new house, new wardrobe, more bookcases, get a car - nothing too bourgeois!

Is this the correct way for a socialist to behave, or do my millionaire aspirations verge on betraying the class? What would you as a principled class fighter do? Let's hear it from
Madam Miaow, Jim Jay, Harpy Marx, Through the Scary Door, Splinty and The Nation of Duncan.

If you do have bourgeois hankerings you want to get off your chest, take advantage of anonymity and let them run free in the comments box.

Saturday 24 January 2009

Stoke Marxists on the Box

Stoke Socialist Party will be hitting the TV screens tomorrow lunch time. No, we haven't got cameos in Coronation Street or Hollyoaks, nor will we be featuring in Animal Park (though offers were received). A couple of our comrades, Andy and Matt, recorded an interview earlier in the week for the West Midlands segment of The Politics Show.

This week's
focus is on the white working class and its growing alienation from the political mainstream, mainly (but not wholly) because of New Labour's abandonment of any kind of class politics. For the feature, brave BBC journalists ventured from their snug base in Birmingham to visit the West Midlands town where the break down in traditional political affiliations are most acute - and that would be Stoke-on-Trent.

For readers unfamiliar with the politics of the Potteries, the council chamber has gone from being all-Labour (that's right, 12 years ago all 60 Stoke councillors sat for Labour) to a low of just 16. It supports the city's Labour mayor
, Mark Meredith in coalition with the Lib Dems and a motley alliance of Tories and "independents". Nine BNP councillors sit in opposition, so do nine (or is it 10?) 'City Independent' councillors, a flotsam and jetsam of "non-aligned" independents, petty two-councillor groups, and a single Libertarian LibDem. The BNP have the highest profile of the beneficiaries of this decomposition, but are by no mean the only ones doing well off the back of it.

What our comrades will be doing is giving Stoke SP's take on the city's political crisis. How much of their interview makes the final cut is anyone's guess - hopefully it will be more than a 10 second soundbite!
The Politics Show is on BBC One at 12pm, Sunday. For those outside the West Mids, you can view it by going to BBC One West Midlands on channel 979 on Sky. The programme will also go up on the show's website, which will be linked to from here as soon as it is available.

Edit: The programme can be viewed on BBC iplayer at The Politics Show url above. Interesting to see leading BNP councillor Michael Coleman admit his party uses misery to fulfill its objectives.

Wednesday 21 January 2009

Has Tommy Sheridan Made a Fool of Himself?

In a democratic counter revolution, Brother Tommy Sheridan was evicted from the Celebrity Big Brother house this evening. In an interesting interview, Tommy admitted he did it purely for the money (law degrees don't come cheap), and mused about the balance of forces in CBB. He more or less outed Coolio, reveled in the house machismo, and is absolutely unapologetic. And he plans to stay in touch with Coolio, Verne and Terry, which could mean Solidarity socials this year might be a touch interesting.

The main question is whether Tommy, Scotland's most famous socialist, has been damaged by his Big Brother experience. On the surface, I would say no. Yes, he did prance around pretending to be LaToya Jackson. Yes, he did dress up as a pepper pot and a toy car. He didn't do his anti-sexist credentials much good. But compared with the car crash that was George Galloway's stint on the show, Tommy has come up smelling of roses. At times the Sheridan charisma was able to shine through and, in all, he acquitted himself as well as anyone could do in a show that thrives on pathological behaviour.

Will his antics on reality TV have harmed Solidarity, and the left as a whole? Again, probably not. As Mark Perryman of
Philosophy Football noted in the Sheridan discussion on Socialist Unity, Tommy's habit of wearing their shirts has generated a lot of interest in his company. Maybe, just maybe, a few CBB viewers will be googling 'Tommy Sheridan socialist' and will read the entries that come up. Who knows, some might even be introduced to socialist ideas on that basis.

But on the other hand, you have the effects of the celebrity game. Most will probably see Tommy as interchangeable with any other celebrity, despite his
CBB billing as a politician and socialist firebrand. At worst those who may have supported Solidarity in particular and socialists in general in the past might now views us as no different as the establishment clowns.

Time will tell.

Tuesday 20 January 2009

... And it's Hello to Him

Barack Obama's inauguration speech wasn't bad was it? Pushing beyond the surface rhetoric, it seems Obama is determined to meet the massive expectations placed in him. Invoking liberal American values throughout, he played up the USA as a collective project, but one that has to meet a changing world. He marked a Keynesian tone, declaring that while markets are good for generating wealth and enhancing freedom, they have to be watched constantly - the prosperity of the few does not guarantee the prosperity of the many. But above all, his talk of big challenges clearly mark the return of the big project. Over the coming weeks we will finally see how the Obama administration will go about remaking America.

The short detour into foreign policy was interesting. Yes, there was the ritual attack on Al-Qaeda, albeit referred to as a "network of terror and hatred". He reaffirmed the objective of spreading democracy, but offered the open hand to dictatorships, "so they can unclench their fists". Coded references to authoritarian Arab regimes, Iran, and North Korea? There was also a pledge to restore America's standing in the world, which of course, can only really mean a more cooperative relationship with the UN as well as a more multilateralist approach to international crises.

Poor old Bush got a pummeling in Obama's shadow boxing. He not-so-subtly attacked Bush's record on foreign affairs, domestic policy, attacks on science and education, and hands off attitude to his finance capital friends until economics forced Bush to intervene. As Bush and his gang shuffle off into retirement, they must be smarting from their bruises.

It is easy for socialists to be cynical about Obama, but
conspicuous displays of it are unlikely to grow our influence and spread our ideas in the new political situation. It is more likely to alienate the constituency we want to engage with. Skill and subtlety have to guide our criticisms in the (likely to be lengthy) honeymoon period, and they must be based firmly on what he says and does. Can the left do this? Yes we can.

A more in-depth look at Obama can be read

It's Goodbye From Him ...

In a matter of hours, George W. Bush will be rootin' and a tootin' his way into retirement, and I for one won't be sorry to see the back of him. If history is kind to Bush, it will remember him as an affable buffoon known for his famous mis-statements and amusing scrapes. But I doubt posterity will be so forgiving. The blood of tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans, and through his unstinting support for Israel, Palestinians and Lebanese, will forever stain his character. His reckless unilateral foreign policy has made America's name mud and made the world a more dangerous place. His redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich means continuing hardship for millions of American workers. Hurricane Katrina probably did more than anything exposed his indifference to those at the bottom of the heap. As the world's most prominent flat-earther climate change denier, his administration has sabotaged meaningful international cooperation on tackling the environmental crisis. Neither will history forget it was his negligence that made the debt-fuelled boom possible, which made the present economic catastrophe inevitable.

As George Dubya ponders a soft retirement on his ranch, cushioned some point down the line by his ghosted memoirs, he and his despicable cronies will not spare a single thought for the victims of their policies. Bush's presidency was the very epitome of bourgeois triumphalism, arrogance and decadence after capitalism, we were told, had finally laid Marx's spectre to rest. It is therefore pleasingly ironic that he, more than any other contemporary political figure, has done more to make the socialist critique and alternative more urgently necessary than ever.

Monday 19 January 2009

Branch Meeting: Israel, Palestine and Socialism

The guns have fallen silent for the time being, and many will be asking what the Israeli state has managed to achieve. Hamas may not be in rude health, but it is intact and will reap the prestige as the main agent of Palestinian resistance. Israel's actions have earned it the undying antipathy of millions in the Middle East and beyond and even a peace sponsored by all the big powers seems a long way off. The post below was a casualty of my electrical difficulties last week. Even though events have overtaken it, I thought it worthwhile publishing a report of what Stoke Socialist Party were thinking and saying as the bombs were falling.

700 dead. 6,000 injured. These were the casualty figures from Israel's butchery in Gaza as Stoke SP met last night to discuss the crisis. Presenting the talk, A was clear where the responsibility lay, and that was squarely on the shoulders of the Israeli state. For all of its claims about Hama rocket launches, it was they who've been blockading Gaza for 18 months, an economic stranglehold that has seen 95 per cent of industry close for want of materials, a rise in unemployment to 60 per cent, and created a situation where 80 per cent of Gaza's population rely on aid shipments. It was Israel that has staged raids and periodically shelled the Strip throughout the "peace time" - including the assassination of six Hamas leaders on 5th November. This is not to deny rocket attacks from Gaza haven't taken place, but these are the fruits of Israel's earlier stirring of tensions between Fatah and Hamas, which culminated in civil war in June 2007. Had they not interfered, it is unlikely Hamas would have taken over the Gaza Strip.

The reason why the Israeli state have launched their offensive in Gaza are well-known - a recouping of lost prestige after the 2006 debacle in southern Lebanon, electioneering, restoring legitimacy in the government after a series of corruption scandals, and diverting attention away from a worsening economic situation. But also, crucially, it's about stamping its will on Israel's near-abroad. They want regime change in Gaza. They want Hamas replaced with the more pliable Fatah, while maintaining their right to keep it under its "tutelage", and reserving the privilege to inflict "chastising" strikes should the Palestinians incur Israel's displeasure.

If anything, there's a good chance Hamas and its ideological brethren across the region could be
strengthened. They have proven a more vocal and consistent opposition to Israel than Fatah, and unlike them have not undermined their own support base by using power and position to coin it. Plus there is the network of educational, medical and welfarist institutions Hamas set up and sponsor. But for all that, they remain an example of right wing populist political Islamism, and are as pro-capital as any other Islamist movement has proven to be. They are authoritarian and reactionary, and their rocket launch responses to Israel's repeated punitive expeditions have ultimately done nothing but provide a pretext for the government to move against them. But this is entirely understandable and is why the barometer of sympathy outside media and Zionist circles has swung the way of the Palestinians since Israel's attack began.

While everyone would welcome a ceasefire there's no point in having illusions that in themselves they are laying the basis for a new Middle East peace. In the most likely scenario, after many more bombs and many more bodies, Israel's key objectives - significantly damaging Hamas and closing the tunnels from Egypt into Gaza - are unlikely to be fulfilled. As for Gaza, the bomb damage, the disgusting human cost, the bitterness and recrimination are hardly likely to lead to a stable situation. The seeds of future conflict are being sown by the present one. Yet, though there is a qualitative gulf between the devastated infrastructure of Gaza and the first world living standards of Israelis, the economy has been left to decay after two decades of neoliberal mismanagement. Numbers under the official bread line are increasing and class divisions are undergoing retrenchment. 15 per cent of Israelis are agency workers and 60 per cent earn less than $1,400/month. The top five per cent earn, on average, 7.5 times that of the bottom five per cent. If this is what capitalism means for relatively privileged Israeli workers, capitalist peace time would see Palestinians receive even thinner gruel.

What way out is there? The most likely scenario, a peace deal backed by the US, EU and UN, would in all likelihood go the way of its predecessors further down the road. A capitalist Israel, its borders flanked by an independent Palestine, could only ever be a relationship between an imperialist metropole and its semi-colonial vassals, albeit in miniature. This two state solution is one in name only. Also, in the
Socialist Party's opinion, neither is a lasting one state solution possible under capitalism. A 'democratic secular Palestine' is not viable for a number of reasons - the bitterness of the division, the qualitative difference in development, the land question, the size of Israeli capital compared with the nascent Palestinian bourgeoisie, all these and many others make South African or Northern Ireland-type solutions very unlikely. The only durable solution lies in the hands of the workers themselves - Israeli socialists have the very difficult task of breaking the working class from Zionist ideology and identification with the Jewish state. Socialists in the surrounding Arab states face the equally difficult task of building their forces in extremely testing circumstances while seeking to build strong links with oppositional movements in Israel. A socialist Israel and Palestine, in the context of a Middle Eastern socialist federation may appear as a utopian position, but holding out the hope capitalism can permanently solve the conflict is more fanciful still.

In the branch discussion, R said the demonstrations taking place across the Arab world and in Israel itself shows the objective possibility of building cross border cooperation. F suggested the key to the Middle East right now is not the traditional storm centre of Israel and Palestine, but can be found in the maelstrom of class struggle convulsing Egypt. This, he thought, offered the best circumstances for building secular, socialist politics across the region and would, in all likelihood, stimulate similar developments elsewhere, including inside Israel itself. N thought the hostility between Israelis and Palestinians was intractable, because of the religious dimension colouring the conflict. The Israeli state makes essentialist claims about Jewish identity and its relationship to the land it occupies. Its siege mentality, drawing heavily on the experience of the Holocaust and the alien otherness of the Muslim Arabs it has displaced makes it very difficult for class interests to assert themselves.

P pointed out this wasn't really an issue of ideological determinism - it was necessary to look at the material circumstances underpinning the hold Zionist ideology has. On the surface, Israel is an advanced capitalist state similar to small West European states. But it is a state sustained by the economic and military aid it receives from the USA and, to a lesser extent, the UK and others in the EU. For example, its assault on Lebanon in 2006 was dependent on this support. Truth is by itself it cannot fight anything other than extremely short, sharp wars. Economically, the aid funds a higher standard of living for Jewish workers than Arab Israelis, Palestinians, and Arab workers in surrounding states. The benefits may be relatively marginal, but the Jewish working class does have a material stake in the continuation of the present state of affairs - as was the case with white workers under apartheid and Protestant workers in Northern Ireland. Instead of seeing the Israeli bourgeoisie as its enemy, the Palestinians in general and Hamas in particular appear a more immediate threat to their welfare. This is why it is especially important (and heartening!) to see big mobilisations against Israel's war in Gaza in the US and UK. Political pressure could reverse their long standing policies - without the subsidies and aid, the Israeli ruling class would undergo a sudden and radical change of heart and take peace more seriously.

Replying to the discussion, A argued that the SP's forerunner opposed the setting up of the Israeli state because it would entrench divisions between Jew and Arab and put a brake on the development of class struggle politics in the Middle East - a prediction that, unfortunately, was borne out. But the film of history cannot be wound back. A substantial Jewish population possessing a national consciousness exist, and it requires skillful politics across borders to convince the working class to abandon its marginal interest in the Zionist state. But despite the system of privileges a class struggle exists - in 2003, 700,000 public sector workers went on strike, followed the year after by 300,000 government workers. When it comes to the blacking of scab cargo, Israeli dock workers have proved to be as militant as their counterparts elsewhere. Similarly, the same is true of the Palestinians themselves. In Gaza, 100,000 struck in 2006 (alongside solidarity actions in the West Bank), broke in solidarity with the Lebanese during the war, and resumed again afterwards. The fire is burning, but Zionism ensures it is the Palestinians, not the Israeli ruling class, who are the ones consumed by the flames.

Not being do-nothings, the branch planned its actions for the following week - a
demo at Keele and helping out at the party's intervention in the London and Birmingham demonstrations.

Saturday 17 January 2009

Back to the Nineties

This last week the BC household took a trip back to the nineties - the 1890s! I'm all for a bit of retro, but spending seven days without power while electricians rip up your carpets and floors, forcing you to boil water on the stove and read by candle light isn't anyone's idea of fun. We'd been having problems with the lecky for a few months. Lights would dim and flash back on. The TV would blink in the middle of those all-important Celebrity Big Brother episodes. The internet would switch off abruptly. And then it all came to a head last Saturday. We walked in and groped around for the switch, but the bloody thing wouldn't turn on! We went to the electric box and, dangerously, the trip hadn't, erm, tripped. Out came the engineer who told us we had two problems. First, our antiquated wiring system was probably arcing somewhere, causing the lights etc. to cut out. Second, the feed into our house was similarly ancient ... and was a serious fire hazard!!! His advice (British Gas engineers no longer have the power to turn a supply off, all they can do is "advise" the customer) was to get the service providers to replace their cabling and then get the place rewired.

Seven days later, here I sit with piles of dusty books and furniture still draped with covers. The plaster around the switches and sockets is more or less dry (disappointingly it's a grim-grey colour rather than the pleasingly warm pink of "traditional" plaster). An endless day of dusting, hoovering and tidying stretch awaits. Sisyphus has nothing on the labour confronting me.

Still, one shouldn't be downhearted. How about a silly, bouncy, kitschy track from
our nineties to get the day off to a bounce. Anyone remember this?

Yes pop pickers, that is Deuce with their cheese-friendly 1995 hit, Call It Love. I sometimes wonder what happened to lead singer Kelly O'Keefe - she had proper star power. 

With all the cleaning, blogging will be sporadic for the next several days. I also need time to catch up on the news and what's been tickling the belly of leftyblogland this last week. I see last week's demo in London against Israel's murderous rampage in Gaza went well, while, simultaneously, the conference on workers' political representation twiddled its thumbs (some belated reflections on this next week). There's been more doom and economic gloom, the dreadful reign of George W. Bush is in its final days, Tina got evicted and Mutya walked from CBB, and The Scum is inexplicably leading with a Mars story that's been doing the rounds in popular science journals for years. It's not as though there's nothing going on in the world!

Friday 9 January 2009

Get Your Voting Fingers Out!

Blogging polls might not mean anything in the real world, but they're still nice things to win. And would you Adam and Eve it, there happens to be one ongoing as I write! The 2008 Weblog awards is probably the biggest going, so for any finalist and the eventual winner the prize is many hundreds and thousands more visitors to their blog. To give you a clue about the numbers we're dealing with, since Monday, the awards claim to have had 950,000 visits. That might not be a number of absolute uniques, but it's still a bloody lot of people!

For this reason there are three bloggers who need your support.

First is my comrade and friend
Madam Miaow. She has been nominated in the best culture blog category, and is, as far as I know, the only left-winger in sight. If everyone who visited this blog in the last week voted for her she would easily cruise into the lead. So get your voting fingers out and support a comrade! Vote for Madam Miaow here.

Neil Clark caused a bit of an upset last year by pipping Iain Dale and Guido to the post in the best UK blog award category. He's up again, but this time the right have concentrated their support on the arch reactionary, Melanie Phillips. Neil offers a take on current affairs and international relations less based on wishful thinking than Mad Mel, so give him your support.

Lastly, in the Middle East or Africa
category, there is only one blog offering an alternative to the Gaza slaughter cheer leader brigade, and that's Juan Cole's Informed Comment. So give him a click!

I never endorse multiple voting, but if you are so inclined you can vote once every 24 hours. But remember, in these instances proxy servers can be your friend!

Thursday 8 January 2009

Relocation, Relocation

When the housing market is more Repossession, Repossession, Repossession than anything else, do we need grinagogs like Kirstie Allsopp and Phil Spencer mooning all over our TV screens, chasing after ridiculously-priced properties for hoorays and sloanes? Channel Four think so and have brought the hideous Relocation, Relocation back to our screens last night. Well, it might not be such a bad time. The housing market is heading down the tubes. House prices fell almost 16 per cent during the course of 2008, and the government has stepped in and bought 379 "surplus" houses from Bovis Homes for £18 million. A bit of help for buyers and sellers would be especially welcome. But none was forthcoming.

Watching this week's
Relocation, Relocation, you could be forgiven for thinking the housing market isn't in crisis. As per usual, it featured an overprivileged couple with hundreds of thousands to spend - not a common situation during the "boom" times, let alone today. "Dom" and "Steph" had lived in three properties in the past five years around the Bristol area and were scouting around for a £500 grand(!) home. Alas, they weren't able to bring home the bacon and decided upon an alternative strategy. Their half a million budget was split in two - a cool £350K was allocated to finding a family home and the rest for a holiday let on the Cornish coast. Steph's specification for Kirstie was four beds, off road parking, a massive garden and for it to be in a 'nice' area. The first house didn't suit this spec. It had period features but lacked a "smooth finish" (what do you expect?) The area was "grim", and you could "hear cars". That's one down. The next was more to her taste - a five year old three-story town house with four beds, which came in at £335,000. On the basis of a few smudges on the laminate flooring Steph thought it needed a "lot of work". The final property had Dom's coveted period features but was a massive £38K over budget. Steph also pronounced the need for it to be redecorated, a new kitchen and a first floor extension, all of which would cost a further £40,000. After some umming and aahhing, they went for the "compromise" new build at a knock-down price of £310,000.

And then came the bombshell. Behind the backs of our chinless hosts they pulled out and plumped for a comparatively pokey bungalow. After the grief they'd suffered, it's a wonder Kirstie and Phil didn't kill them in the face. But that was an end to the ordeal. Our fantastic four hit Cornwall in search of the holiday rental. The plan was to buy a house they could rent out and use themselves. I could have told them that wasn't the wisest of moves - meeting personal requirements and the needs of the rental market aren't necessarily compatible. And so it was in the first house they were shown. It clearly didn't meet Steph's exacting standards, despite being decently furnished. The promise such a holiday rental could command a £1,000/week rent(!) peak season didn't phase her. But at least they were savvy enough to realise we're in the early phase of a severe economic downturn and might have problems seeing that sort of money in the immediate future. Instead they did the wise thing and hung on to their money, which they'll no doubt do until a repossessed bargain comes along.

Privilege and smarm oozes from every
Relocation, Relocation pore. It's horribly irritating. But more than that, it, its Location, Location, Location sibling, Property Ladder, House Doctor, Homes Under the Hammer and even the otherwise interesting Grand Designs all rode the property bubble and spread the housing love around. If Thatcher aimed to create a nation of home owners, these programmes went a step further than her wildest dreams and encouraged a land of multiple home owners. How many bought into their propaganda, had a go at the property developing lark and are now staring ruin in the face? I'm sure few socialists will be losing sleep over these people. But the likes of Kirstie and Phil helped this layer along, but will Relocation Relocation reflect on their plight? Not on your nelly. Just as working class folk with tight incomes and modest budgets never figured on Kirstie and Phil's radar, the losers of the property crash, will be shunned. On their planet, there are lifestyles to buy and people with cash to burn. But for the rest of us, well, there's always the off button.

Wednesday 7 January 2009

Science and Islam

These days, religion and science aren't thought of as easy bedfellows, but as a new three-part series on BBC Four demonstrates, this hasn't always been the case. In Science and Islam, prof. Jim Al-Khalili demonstrates the intimate bond that once existed between the development of science and the rising power of Islam. And along the way he helpfully (if unwittingly) demolishes some myths that have grown up around Islam.

Between the 9th and the 12th centuries, the Islamic world experienced its own scientific enlightenment. By the time of Muhammad's death in 632, Islam had spread through conquest across the Arabian peninsula. By 750 it stretched from the Pyrenees to the Indus. In 762, Baghdad was founded as the capital of the empire on major trade routes running from east and west. It was also around this time that the empire began to rationalise its bureaucracy. According to Al-Khalili the way it tried to avoid the centrifugal forces nibbling at the extremities was by making Arabic the standard, official language. By coincidence, the intimate relationship between Arabic and the 
Qur'an made the language well-suited to its task.

One of the key instructions regarding the
Qur'an is that as the word of God, its text must be meticulously preserved. As a set of religious instructions it needed to be as clear as possible to avoid problems of misinterpretation and understanding. The injunction that each Qur'an be copied clearly, carefully and without changes made written Arabic a precise script. Therefore it was well suited for the language of imperial administration. But its adoption as the empire’s official tongue had the happy unintended effect of providing a common and precise language for its scattered scholastic communities. Administrative rationalisation allowed the geographically isolated savants of Islam to correspond without linguistic barriers getting in the way. As time passed these circles of correspondents circulated ideas and developed new discoveries and ways of thinking, wealthy patrons and the Caliph got involved for their own reasons, such that the Islamic world went through a renaissance of its own.

Medicine was a focus of much of this scientific activity. In the
Hadith, the collection of Muhammad’s sayings and deeds, he reportedly said “God did not send down disease without sending a cure”. There were then powerful religious reasons that made medicine a worthwhile scientific pursuit. The empire, bordering Europe and India and on the overland trade routes to China drew on the medical traditions of all three, as well as the herbalism that was (and to an extent, still is) the preserve of Arabic women. Islamic medicine also developed hospitals, introduced the pharmacy and developed tools and masks for surgery. It was also the first to make use of anatomical drawings as surgical aids. The synthesis of traditions and the new practices culminated in Ibn Sina's 1025 encyclopedia, The Canon of Medicine. This landmark work established principles such as diagnosis and cure, and formed the basis of medical knowledge that lasted until the early 19th century.

With the system of patronage, valuable discoveries were made in the course of meeting the ruler’s demands. One achievement of Islamic science, only recently acknowledged by modern scholarship, was its translation of Egyptian hieroglyphics into Arabic some 1,000 years prior to the discovery of the
Rosetta Stone. The historian, Ibin Washiyya managed this by realising that the Coptic alphabet, which as a living contemporary language could easily be translated into Arabic, was in fact a descendent of these hieroglyphs. Unfortunately the caliph who sponsored the project was disappointed. Egyptian tombs and stone carvings yielded no hoped-for magical and alchemical secrets.

Islam’s contribution to mathematics is probably its best-known contribution to science. From India Muslim scholars took the numbers system (which, as we saw, was then introduced into mediaeval Europe), and from ancient Greece came geometry. But they did more than just preserve these achievements. They built on them. The noted Persian scholar, al-Khwārizmī, combined the two and opened an entirely new continent of mathematics: algebra. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of this scholarship. At a stroke principles of abstract mathematical thought independent of numbers were established with innumerable applications. Equally crucial was the introduction of the decimal point to denote fractions of numbers.

By the end of
Science and Islam, Al-Kalili concluded that the great achievement of science’s relationship with Islam was confirming its independence as a mode of thought from religious and local/cultural traditions. Science wasn’t essentially Islamic. Neither was it essentially Indian, Greek or Chinese. It was a synthesis of all these sources. Without this synthesis and the discoveries Islamic scholars built upon it, the subsequent renaissance and enlightenment in Western Europe that came centuries later may never have happened, or at least proceeded at a much slower pace.

But importantly for today, the role Islam played in the history of science demonstrates it is no more barbaric or anti-intellectual than any other major religion. It conclusively disproves the euro-centric and racist contention that nothing of consequence happened outside of Europe that caused it to rise to global prominence from the 16th century onwards. In short, without the Arabic contributions to science modern Europe would look very different to the one we have today.

The next two episodes will be broadcast on BBC Four at 9pm on the 12th and 19th January.