Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Austerity is a killer disease

No one should be surprised that the financial and economic crisis is taking its toll on people’s health right across Europe and North America. What would be a surprise, however, is if policy makers and politicians responded positively to shocking research findings.

Nine physicians have produced an analysis of the impact of the economic crisis on the health of ordinary people. Published in The Lancet, they conclude that the public health effects are already visible, particularly in the countries most affected by the recession and where drastic spending cuts have been imposed.

In Greece, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund has demanded that public spending on health should not exceed 6% of GDP. It’s the first time a country has lost control of what it spends on health.

Spending on drugs has been cut sharply while physicians have seen a 25% fall in their income. In 2011 alone, 370 specialist units were eliminated and 2,000 hospital beds were lost in Greece.

The incidence of mental disorders has increased in Greece and Spain and self-reported general health and access to health-care services have worsened in Greece. The number of suicides in people younger than 65 years has grown in the EU since 2007, reversing a steady decrease in many countries. The Greek Ministry of Health reported a 40% rise in suicides between January and May, 2011.   

In the member states that joined the EU in or after 2004, suicides peaked in 2009 and remained high in 2010, whereas a further increase was noted in 2010 in the 15 pre-2004 countries of the EU. In England, the increase in suicides in 2008-10 was “significantly associated with increased unemployment”, and resulted in an estimated 1,000 excess deaths.

In Spain, between 2006 and 2010, the prevalence of mental health disorders in people attending primary care increased significantly, especially those of mood, anxiety, somatoform, and alcohol-related disorders; the rise in the prevalence of major depression was the biggest.

“It is estimated at least half the rise in attendance with mental health disorders could be attributed to the combined risks of individual or family unemployment and difficulties with mortgage payments,” say the study’s authors.

Loss of family income particularly affects the weakest and most vulnerable members of society. In Catalonia between 2005 and 2010, the proportion of children at risk of poverty increased from 20·6% to 23·7%. In 2012, the Spanish government passed by royal decree a law that ties health coverage to employment. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants without papers will only have limited access.

Political economist David Stuckler, one of the authors of The Lancet research, and Sanjay Basu, an assistant professor of medicine and an epidemiologist at Stanford University,  have just published The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills.

They say that more than 10,000 suicides and up to a million cases of depression could be attributed to the effects of the recession across Europe and North America. In Britain, some 10,000 families have been pushed into homelessness by the government's austerity measures, they believe. The Lancet study authors conclude:  
 Finally, public health voices have been largely absent from the debate about how to respond. Many health ministries have been silent. The Directorate-General for Health and Consumer Protection of the European Commission, despite its legal obligation to assess the health effects of EU policies, has not assessed the effects of the troika's drive for austerity, and has instead limited EU commentary to advice about how health ministries can cut their budgets.
 A small source of optimism is that European civil society organisations, including professional bodies, have spoken out about the adverse health effects of cuts to health and social spending. The question is whether anyone will listen.

With governments locked into imposing the burden of the crisis of capitalism on to ordinary people, you have to say that hands over ears is the order of the day.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Monday, April 29, 2013

Corporate murder in Bangladesh

Cheers went up yesterday among the exhausted rescuers at Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. It had just been announced that six factory owners had been arrested.

So far 380 garment workers, mainly women, are known to have died in the rubble of that huge building, where 3,000 people were working at the time of its collapse.

The worst ever factory disaster in Bangladesh’s history has shocked people around the world, including those who wear clothes purchased at Primark, Benetton and Walmart, which used the factory. Matalan and Bonmarché are also appear to be connected with the New Wave Style company, the largest employer in the Dhaka building.

Many share the desire to make those who profit from employing cheap labour by making people work under such lethal conditions pay for their crimes. But – and there are several buts –  will punishing these men put an end to the crude and cruel exploitation of human labour that takes place day in and day out, not only in Bangladesh but throughout the world?

And how could this murder – and it is a kind of murder – happen so soon after the fire at the Tazreen factory last November, also in Dhaka, in which 112 people died?  Why was nothing done after that?

The factory owners at Rana Plaza insisted workers should return to work even after safety engineers warned that huge cracks in the building’s walls were evident. They were told they would be docked three days pay for every day they were absent.

In the wake of these events, many shoppers feel complicit in the suffering of those in the Bangladeshi rag trade. Are we wearing “blood clothes”, they ask?  Calls for consumers to boycott companies like Primark are widespread. Ethical buying is said to be the solution.

Like so many others, London Evening Standard fashion editor Karen Dacre calls for “consumer power” to force changes in the clothing industry. That sounds good. But how can you tell how a company treats its workers? And who is responsible for auditing conditions?

Responsibility Outsourced, a report by major US trade unions, is deeply critical of the companies and organisations that are supposed to monitor how workers are treated. The Ali Enterprises factory in Pakistan in which 260 workers died in a fire last year, had just earned its certification from the non-profit social auditing group, Social Accountability International.

In the report, which is dedicated to murdered garment workers leader Aminul Islam, the unions are deeply critical of social audit firms, including the Fair Labour Organisation which monitors the Foxconn plant that supplies Apple. FLA gets money from corporates such as Apple and Nestlé.  

Trade union and labour activists know that factories are not going to police themselves and are rightly calling for binding agreements. But even after a binding agreement was developed by labour organisations, Wal-Mart and Sears not only refused to sign but refused to pay compensation to the Tazreen victims.

But, while the report avoids saying so, it is the capitalist system itself which is the real murderer. As it notes: “While this globalised business model continues to provide vast profits for companies, it comes at a tremendous cost to working people and to the economies of many of the poorest nations.”

Human labour is simply another commodity to be bought and sold, at the cheapest price going. That’s why manufacturers moved into Bangladesh in the first place. The Rana Plaza was just one of the 5,500 factories Bangladeshi rag trade factories where the average monthly wage of the three million workers is around £25 per month. Clothing production accounts for 82% of Bangladesh’s GDP, a huge rise since 1985.

Companies must seek out the cheapest labour possible to out-do their competitors. No amount of consumer boycotting or regulation will abolish that underlying imperative. As one Bangladeshi union organiser told the BBC: "You buy one get one free - but it's not really free."

The global corporations will always find willing accomplices, whether it is in Bangladesh, China, Brazil or in Britain in their search for profits. Moving on from an economic system driven by greed and profit is the biggest priority of all.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

Friday, April 26, 2013

McCluskey lets Miliband off the hook

What are we to make of the spat between Len McCluskey, the leader of Britain’s biggest union and Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party who in large measures owes his very position to the man he has publicly castigated?

McCluskey wants Miliband to rid his leadership of three Blairite members of the shadow cabinet or risk losing the next election. For his part, Miliband has attacked McCluskey for a “reprehensible” attempt to divide the Labour and of being “disloyal” to the party.

Wary of attempts by the right-wing press to portray him as a creature of the unions, a spokesman for Miliband added for good measure that McCluskey "does not speak for the Labour Party".

The charge sheet against McCluskey was further extended to accuse him of advocating “the kind of politics that lost Labour many elections in the 1980s”. Considering that McCluskey’s Unite provides 20% of the funding for Labour, it’s a high-risk quarrel.

Miliband is surely aware, however, that McCluskey is unlikely to turn his words into actions anytime soon. And here’s where McCluskey is somewhat disingenuous. In his interview with the New Statesman, McCluskey says his recent re-election as general secretary means the union will be checking up on Labour up to after the next election.

But when McCluskey suggests Miliband must spending many an hour worrying about how to neuter the influence of the Blairites, he has got it 100% wrong. Miliband, it is true, has tried to distance himself a little from the Blair-Brown governments, of which he was a member. But in essence, Miliband is no different in outlook.

Under his leadership, Labour has adopted policies and attitudes which Unite is actually opposed to. These include the acceptance of the ConDems’ public sector pay freeze, cuts in services and jobs at local government level, opposition to strike action in defence of pensions, etc. etc. etc.

As Miliband’s statement says, he believes McCluskey is advocating the politics of the 1980s, which Labour has rejected. Instead, Miliband has embraced “responsible capitalism” as a goal, pre-distribution rather than redistribution (I’ll leave you to ponder that one), workfare and reducing the national debt. He is also vying with Ukip and the Tories to adopt anti-immigration postures and has no plans to end the role of the markets in public services and the NHS.

This is Blairism Mark II, the hunt for the so-called “centre ground” in British politics, which is now overcrowded with politicians from the all the mainstream parties putting forward more or less the same policies.

McCluskey must know this. Indeed, he refers to the dangers of Miliband going into an election with “austerity-lite” policies. But by choosing to attack Blairites like Douglas Alexander, Jim Murphy and Liam Byrne, he evades the reality of Miliband’s own leadership and what Labour has irrefutably become.

McCluskey claims that Labour is “at a crossroads” when in fact it passed them a long time ago. Neoliberalism isn’t, whatever McCluskey might suggest, a product of Blairism. Rather, it was the other way round. Blair, like Thatcher before him, responded to the changes in the capitalist system.

Globalisation demanded deregulation and open markets. States and governments fell into line because, ultimately, they serve the same master – the bottom line. The era that went before – top-down state ownership, heavy bureaucracy, capital controls, regulation etc – was swept aside and cannot be reproduced.

Miliband is no fool and he knows this. Having seen what’s happened to Francois Hollande across the Channel, where attempts to rein in capitalism have floundered, Miliband is not about to go down the same path. So when McCluskey says that if Labour fails to emerge as “the authentic voice of ordinary working people” his union would reconsider its position, he is a long way behind what’s already happened.

Unite stumped up the cash to get Miliband elected ahead of his brother after the last election. The political return on capital invested is so negligible that his membership must wonder why they continue to fund Labour. McCluskey is undoubtedly feeling the pressure from his rank-and-file. That’s why he’s spoken out. Now he owes them a debate about where their money goes right now, not at some distant point in the future.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Osborne defends sovereignty of banks not UK citizens

The Treasury is trying to frighten Scots out of voting “Yes” in the 2014 referendum on independence over the question of what a currency union based on the pound would mean. But George Osborne is hardly in any position to lecture others.

Osborne and his crypto-Tory pal Danny Alexander, still nominally a LibDem, are promoting the virtues of a report written by civil servants and academics. The report claims that the “current currency and monetary policy arrangements within the UK serve Scotland well”.

In fact, it is described as “one of the most successful monetary, fiscal and political unions in history”. Leaving aside this sensational claim to a unique place in world history, the sting is in the tail.

The report claims the SNP's preferred option of continuing to use the pound sterling might be rejected by the rest of the UK because it could expose the larger neighbour to risk if Scotland ran into fiscal and financial difficulties.

It concludes that even if a deal could be reached, it would have to include arrangements for Scottish ministers to hand their annual budgets over to Westminster for approval even before they had been voted on at Holyrood.

And it admits that would run both ways, with Scotland wanting some say over British fiscal policy. Bu Con/Dem chancellor Osborne is having none of that. He told an audience of Scottish business people:

"The fundamental political question this analysis provokes is this - why would 58 million citizens give away some of their sovereignty over monetary and potentially other economic policy to five million people in another state?

“Before the rest of the UK could ever agree to enter a formal currency union, any future UK chancellor of the exchequer tied to independence would have to provide the British people with a clear and compelling answer to this question.”

Well maybe the compelling question he should actually answer is, what control do the citizens of any country have over their currency? The answer is, absolutely none. It is outrageous for Osborne of all people to masquerade as the defender of the sovereignty of the citizens of the UK.

The financial sector he serves has created a level of debt that is so uncontrollable that even the global corporations are terrified about the future. The 50% collapse in Tesco pre-tax profits, and bankruptcies in retail are the front end of a collapse in manufacturing that will bring even more downward pressure on wages and working conditions.

And what do governments of nation states, like Britain, mired in an eternal and deepening global crisis do to defend their citizens? Well we know the answer to that. They have so little real control over the economy that they are basically reduced to just two possible actions.

One is to slash public spending in order to try to reduce the deficit. And the other is to print money, introducing liquidity into the economy but at the same time undermining the long-term value of the currency overall.

The real attack on the pound has come from Treasury-authorised quantitative easing in a desperate attempt to shore up the banks. The result is that the majority of us exist every day within a hostile economic and fiscal environment that offers us no security and no control whatsoever.

The real sovereignty question is why do 90% of the people hand control over currency, their public services and their social, political and environmental future to governments who operate on behalf of the minority who stand to gain from the current arrangements? What kind of independence and self-determination do we really have, north or south of the border? To ask the question is to answer it.

This whole independence debate is, not surprisingly, bringing to the fore burning political and economic questions. Neither Osborne nor Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond have any answers outside of the failed policies they are already pursuing.

Penny Cole

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Tell Goldman Sachs to get lost

The cracks in the global economy are widening at a hard-to-grasp rate. Contraction is accelerating in Europe, and growth is slowing in the United States and China, the world’s two largest economies.

One of the key measures of the health of the capitalist economy – Markit’s purchasing managers’ index (PMI) for manufacturing in the eurozone – dipped to a four-month low of 46.5 in April. On this measure anything below 50 means contraction. The composite index for Germany, the eurozone’s largest economy, fell sharply to a six-month low.

Banco de Espana, Spain’s central bank estimates that its country’s GDP was 0.5% lower in the first quarter of 2013 than the same period in 2012. One of the consequences is that migration out of Spain is soaring as people desperate for work move to other parts of Europe.

Greece’s economy is expected to contract a further 5% this year, bringing the total since the crash to 25%. Optimists, with no evidence to support them, hope and pray that the decline will stop there.

Debt levels continue to mount. Overall, eurozone sovereign debt rose to 90.6% of economic output (GDP) last year, the highest on record. Of the four eurozone countries receiving bailout funds only Greece saw its debt levels decrease, from 170% of GDP in 2011 to 157%  – still the highest in the EU. Irish, Spanish and Portuguese debt levels all hit euro-era highs last year, with Portugal close to surpassing Italy as the second most indebted nation in the eurozone.  

Despite all the efforts to arrest the contraction by injecting monstrous amounts of fantasy finance they call “quantitative easing”, and imposing austerity budgets to deal with the debt mountains, some are indicating that the game is up. 

President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso now believes that the assault on living standards through slashing cuts in government expenditure known as austerity “has reached its limits in many aspects”. Revolt throughout Europe has convinced him that “a policy to be successful not only has to be properly designed. It has to have the minimum of political and social support.”

What his next step might be isn’t clear, apart from lowering the European Central Bank’s base interest rate from its current 0.75%, a move that’s been tried and failed in the US and the UK.

And elsewhere, in the world’s largest economies?

The PMI index for the US fell in April to its weakest level since last November. A similar measure for China dipped to a two-month low at a rate that’s just half a per-cent from contraction territory.

It’s no wonder that the world’s governments are impotent. There are powers greater than all of them. Some 97 of the top 100 multinational corporations pay no corporation tax. So when Goldman Sachs’ chairman and chief executive Lloyd Blankfein says the UK government has to stick to austerity or face the wrath of the markets, you know who actually decides the country’s economic policy.

Amidst the crisis, there’s the best ever opportunity to move to something much better. The capitalist “mode of production”, as Marx called it, has nurtured the social forces who, as he also wrote, have nothing to lose but a world to win. 

For the 99% the question is not how to bring about a recovery for the capitalist system. The best of the global elites have applied their minds to this task and have patently failed.

Instead, let’s look to co-operative, collectively-owned democratically-run productive enterprises like Mondragon in Spain, founded in 1956 and the brand new Vio.me in Northern Greece. These are models we can develop throughout the rest of the economy when we achieve the power to do so. We could begin by telling Goldman Sachs to take a running jump.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

ConDems attack rule of law with sledgehammer

The slide to outright authoritarian rule continues apace. Another assault on access to the courts system, this time through restrictions to the judicial reviews process, is a further nail in the coffin of the rule of law and thus to our democratic rights.

When access to the legal system comes to depend on wealth, as more and more it does, then the basis of justice is undermined. That’s the effect of ConDem policies to destroy legal rights carried out under the guise of “efficiency savings”.

Since April 1, legal aid has no longer been available for cases involving divorce, child custody, clinical negligence, welfare, employment, immigration, housing, debt, benefit and education. A number of advice centres have closed as a result. An estimated 600,000 people will lose access to advice and legal representation.

Then there are the proposals to curb the rights of defendants to lawyers of their choice in criminal cases. These are so draconian that yesterday hundreds of lawyers based in the North of England effectively went on strike in protest. Instead of attending court, they held a day-long meeting in Manchester.

Leading trial prosecutor, Nicholas Clarke QC, says the proposals “will undermine the position of the independent bar, irretrievably and forever”. No defendant would be able to choose a firm on the basis of reputation or service.

Add in new laws providing for secret courts, you can see where this government is heading – at a rapid pace. Without pausing for breath, today the ConDems confirmed plans to curb the right to a judicial review. This the process by which people and campaigns can – at their own expense – challenge decisions of public bodies, including the government itself.

It’s a relatively unsuccessful route. Last year, there were over 11,200 applications to the High Court and only 174 were successful in that the courts made orders against the authorities concerned. More than 8,500 applications were immigration and asylum cases, reflecting the harsh way the state and its tribunals treat people in the initial stages. Only 54 were successful.

Now the justice (or should that be “justice”?) secretary Chris Grayling has quadrupled legal fees and imposed tight restrictions on time limits for lodging applications. The aim is to dispel what it calls the "culture of using meritless judicial review applications". What is really behind this measure, however, is the determination to steamroller through planning and development plans.

Claire Norman, from the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: "The financial costs alone were already prohibitive for environmental groups to address environmental wrongs, halving the time limit in which they can be made sends the message that the government really wants this safeguard removed altogether.

"We need good quality development with public consent. This decision only works to undermine the credibility of the planning system, and removes one of the only means for community groups to challenge decisions.”

Judicial reviews are a cornerstone of the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law – as opposed to the unfettered rule of the executive - which was set out as a principle in the Bill of Rights of 1689. They have grown in numbers since the 1980s as more and more people have fought back against public authorities.

The attack on legal aid and other measures have prompted the UK’s most senior judge to speak out. Lord Neuberger, president of the supreme court, said last month that cutting legal aid would “start cutting people off from justice”, which would be “dangerous”. While he was not saying that “the rule of law is going to fall to pieces” he added: “But I do think we have to be careful.”

Clearly Neuberger is concerned about the threat to the rule of law posed by accumulated changes in favour of the executive and against the interests of those who seek redress or need to defend themselves. He is right to be. The market state is not interested in justice but in getting the best price at the lowest cost. It’s another good reason to support the campaign for a new democratic constitution sponsored by the Agreement of the People for the 21st century.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Monday, April 22, 2013

Iron fist of the US state comes down hard in Boston

The reaction to the Boston marathon attack reveals a dangerous degeneration at the very heart of the US state, from president Barack Obama downwards. In truth, if you want to know what martial law looks like in the 21st century, what happened in Boston says it all.

Immediately after the explosions, a gross state attack on rights and civil liberties began in the same city where the citizens took up a revolutionary struggle against British colonial rule in the late 18th century in the famous "Tea Party" revolt. 

Heavy armoured vehicles, soldiers, the FBI, local and state police turned the city into an armed fortress in the hunt for just two men. This was a blatant attempt by a nervous state machine to intimidate a whole city.

After some wavering, Obama pronounced the Boston marathon bombings as a “terror attack”. But the truth is, it is still not clear if the Chechen-American brothers involved were actually part of any wider network. The elder brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev was politically motivated, but any connections with al-Qaeda have yet to be shown.

Whatever the case, the reaction by the American state and its agencies demonstrates its abject failure to protect its citizens on almost every front. The reaction to the bombings showed disarray within the security forces combined with massive infringements of the rights of Bostonians. The facts include:

  • The FBI received warnings from Russian intelligence about the brothers and interviewed the family in 2011. Nothing followed. This “security lapse” appears serious enough to fuel rumours that the FBI or the CIA may have been using one of the brothers as a double agent.
  • An “unbelievable over-reaction” in the manhunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, leading to a state of siege being imposed by the Boston police. One million people were ordered to stay home and lock their doors, even after the police knew that Dzhokhar was a 19-year-old on the run. The Boston public transport and Amtrak rail services to New York were closed down.
  • Despite the huge deployment of every SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team and paramilitary vehicle from surrounding New England states descending on Boston, it was a home owner who found the second bomber. “There was no cause and effect relationship between the state show of power and the apprehension of the suspect,” rights campaigner Tom Mullen, writing in the Washington Times has noted.
  • The refusal to read the remaining suspect his legal rights (known in the US as Miranda) on grounds that he represents a “public danger” – even though he is critically ill and handcuffed to his hospital bed is being widely criticised by the American Civil Liberties Union, Slate website and many others rights organisations. As they point out, the “public danger” exception from the right to the fifth amendment (to keep silent) does not remotely apply to this situation.
  • Adding to the crimes and misdemeanours of the state were the actions of some amateur detectives on social media sites like Reddit and 4chan which led to some media accusing perfectly innocent bystanders.
Mullen asks: “How did we get here? 238 years to the day, the inhabitants of the very same city started a war and seceded from their union over a mere infantry brigade attempting to disarm them. Now they cheer those who violate their rights much worse than the British ever did.” 

Well, events in Boston deepen a process under way for some time. The American revolution of 1776 has come full circle. Representative democracy invented by the Founding Fathers has given way to a corporatocracy, where economic and financial power have fused with politics. This realignment is, naturally, enforced by vicious state power at home and abroad. Time to renew the American Revolution.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

Friday, April 19, 2013

Capitalism is forever blowing bubbles

Usually, this column begins on a serious note, especially when we’re talking about the global economy. Today, however, I bring you the chorus of a song that made its debut in America in 1918 and is better known as the club anthem of West Ham United.

I'm forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air,
They fly so high,
Nearly reach the sky,
Then like my dreams,
They fade and die.
Fortune's always hiding,
I've looked everywhere,
I'm forever blowing bubbles,
Pretty bubbles in the air.

What’s the connection, you may well ask? Well, with the International Monetary Fund lurching about all over the place and central bankers confessing in public that they are not sure what’s going on in the global economy, you can be sure that there’s real trouble ahead.

One of their real concerns is that the “easy money” policy introduced after the 2007-8 financial crash has had unintended consequences. Instead of stimulating genuine growth in the real economy, the policy has instead created “bubbles” that, unlike the soap version, will burst with real venom.

The IMF once encouraged austerity as a response to the financial crisis and budget deficits. That hasn’t worked, so they’re now telling George Osborne and others to loosen up. But does the IMF know what’s going on? Clearly not,  if Lorenzo Bini Smaghi, the former member of the European Central Bank’s executive board, is to believed.

At the IMF’s spring meeting this week, he confessed: “We don’t fully understand what is happening in advanced economies.” Central bankers have printed $12 trillion in new money, kept interest rates at zero and cut public sector spending.

However, despite this intervention, while there may be signs of growth in a park near you, there’s no discernible movement in terms of “growth” in output, which is the lifeblood of the capitalist system. What is looming, however, is a new phase of financial instability.
Janet Yellen, vice-chairman of the US Federal Reserve, admitted that “in the years before the crisis, financial stability became a ‘junior partner’ in the monetary policy process, in contrast with its traditionally larger role.” Now she is concerned that central bankers are repeating their errors, storing up “financial distortions” for the not-to-distant future.

With returns from the real economy meagre compared with the pre-crash period, there is speculation in all sorts of “assets”. Stock markets around the world are nearing the peaks they achieved before 2007 despite the continuing global recession. Trading in junk bonds – debt – is soaring. In London, house prices are leaping off the charts.

And now we are presented with a new one phenomenon – the “carbon bubble”. The warning comes from Lord Stern, author of the ground-breaking 2006 report on climate change that described global warming as a market failure, and the think tank Carbon Tracker.

Their report published today says that stock markets are inflating an investment bubble in fossil fuels. "The financial crisis has shown what happens when risks accumulate unnoticed," said Stern, who added that the risk was “very big indeed”. The “carbon bubble” results from a massive over-valuation of oil, coal and gas reserves.

Back to the IMF and José Viñals, its head of financial stability. “Put simply, we are in uncharted territory.”

Fear not IMF and central bankers. Coming over the horizon is one Ed Miliband, leader of the Labour Party and wannabe prime minister. In an interview published on the Shifting Grounds website, Miliband says that what is required is a “proper skills system, a proper banking system, an industrial policy, tackling short-termism, infrastructure. It's about a suite of things … that come together and form a body of ideas around responsible capitalism.”

I knew someone out there had the answer.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Veneuzuela faces US plots to overthrow Maduro

The US State Department is at it again, supporting attempts to overturn the results of the Venezuelan election and plotting against the United Socialist Party government.

The election held following the death of Hugo Chavez was won by vice-president Nicolas Maduro. But US secretary of state John Kerry is supporting opposition calls for a recount.

As soon as the result was announced, opposition candidate Henrique Capriles presented a series of claims of fraud to the electoral commission. Maduro agreed to a recount, but the electoral commission turned Capriles down. Analysis shows that all the claims he made were entirely false.

In fact, it is virtually impossible to rig a Venezuelan election (unlike in the United States where George Bush was gerrymandered into power by election fraud courtesy of “hanging chads” and the Supreme Court).

There are no "hanging chads" in Venezuela which has a bang up-to-date touch screen voting system. The voter touches the screen to record their vote electronically and then gets a paper receipt which they verify and put in a ballot box.

The electronic tally is then compared with the paper ballot. To rig the result you would have to first somehow hack into the central computer of the electoral commission and then interfere with the paper ballots to make sure they matched.

The fact that his claims were shown to be false didn't stop Capriles appealing to the Supreme Court, which also turned him down. The court's president said the request was nothing more than "a deceit of the people" aimed at destabilising the country.

Seven government supporters have been killed and 60 injured in demonstrations and semi-riots organised by the opposition. Maduro has now publicly voiced his view that the United States and the opposition are planning a rerun of the 2000 coup attempt to topple Chavez.

So just how close is this election result? Well not as close as the one that gave Kerry his chance at the State Department.

Maduro won 50.66% of the vote on a turnout of 78% of the electorate. In the 2012 US election Obama won 51.1% of the vote on a turnout of 57.5%.  Some 93 million eligible Americans did not vote. So which leader has a stronger mandate?

In Venezuela, 97% of eligible voters are on the register whereas in the US a dozen states have been pushing through laws on identity, birth certificates and education, specifically designed to deprive poor voters of their rights.

The US embassy in Caracas is full of CIA spooks and agents provocateurs, as was proved by State Department cables published on Wikileaks. One cable sent in November 2006 details how dozens of non-government organisations (NGOs) were financially maintained by the US government-funded Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI).

This included “over 300 Venezuelan civil society organizations”, ranging from disability advocates to education programs. All very well-intentioned you might think.

However the real purpose was revealed by then-US ambassador to Venezuela William Brownfield as “penetrating Chavez’s political base... dividing Chavismo... protecting vital US business ...[and] isolating Chavez internationally”. The strategic objective was to develop "opposition-aligned civil society organisations".

So far Capriles is the closest the US has got to achieving this. He is a relatively astute, Columbia University-educated tax lawyer who comes from a wealthy family. He has recognised that there is no way to win elections on a platform of dismantling the social and political achievements of the Chavez era, so he claims he will continue them.

His main target is Venezuela's oil and other resources, which he would make “more efficient” by transferring them to the private sector and opening them up to exploitation by the big oil corporations.

Although the Wikileaks cable refers to a period when George W. Bush was in the White House, there can be little doubt that the Obama administration’s reactionary foreign policy continues his predecessor’s policy of destabilisation. For Washington, democracy is alright – unless you don’t get the result you want.

Penny Cole

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

China's 'unsustainable'' economy weighed down by debt

Hopes that the continuation of China’s long boom will drag the rest of the developed capitalist world – the so-called advanced economies – back from contraction have been further dashed

The country’s part in the global economic spiralling slowdown was underlined yesterday when rating agency Moody’s joined Fitch in downgrading the country’s credit outlook. The downgrade from positive to stable was the agency’s response to the news that China’s growth rate has slowed to 7.7%, continuing the downward trend of the last two years.

News of the slowdown - greater than expected by market speculators who were banking on 8% or higher – reverberated around the world. Prices on the commodity and stock exchanges dropped sharply as demand for key inputs, including copper and oil, will fall.

Fitch downgraded its China rating last week. The agency sees warning signs in the massive expansion of credit from 130% of gross domestic product in 2008 to 200% in 2012. This is partly the result of the state’s huge investment in new cities and transport infrastructure, which was the response to the 2007-8 financial crash.

But the growth in credit is also the product of a hardly-regulated shadow banking industry offering “wealth-management” products to the minority of new rich who’ve benefited from China’s emergence as the world’s second largest economy.

The investment from abroad in search of cheap labour, which drew millions of Chinese into the workforce serving the profits of global corporations is now in decline as companies like Foxconn, which runs Apple’s assembly plants is looking elsewhere  in the world. Some corporations are even returning to the United States where real incomes have been driven down.

China’s state infrastructure programme, heavily promoted by former premier Wen Jia Bao, encouraged local administrations into spending way beyond their means in order to stave off the worst effects of the global crash, but he saw its limits.

"Another year of propped-up growth via state spending and a credit deluge would, we fear, push China dangerously close to proving Wen Jiabao correct - that the current economic model is 'unsustainable'," said Alistair Thornton, senior China economist at IHS Global Insight. "If something is unsustainable, at some point, it won't be sustained."

Despite the warning signs, China’s central bank has cut interest rates twice since June to reduce borrowing costs for businesses and consumers and increase lending.

And China is far from exempt from the continuing global slowdown. Yesterday the International Monetary Fund once again cut its forecast for world growth to 3.3% for 2013, from its January prediction of 3.5% whilst trying but failing to convince the markets that it remains upbeat about the future.

The IMF’s latest World Economic Outlook sees the eurozone as a whole contracting by 0.3%, the US slowing to 1.9% growth as the government slashes spending, but it also saw growth slowing in large emerging economies like Russia, China, Brazil and India.  

Summarising the latest set of global data, leading economics professor Eswar Prasad says: “The global economic recovery remains stuck below takeoff speed, unable to achieve liftoff and facing the risk of stalling.”          

Prasad’s warning that “politicians around the world continue to avoid tough structural reforms, instead relying on central banks to continue propping up growth”, implies a redoubling of the assault on living standards that has produced 60% unemployment among young people in Greece and Spain. 

Without these more vicious “reforms”, says Prasad, “policy and political uncertainty remain sources of drag that could prevent the world economy from attaining liftoff, raising the risk of a crash”.

On the day that UK unemployment rose by 70,000, you have to say that the “crash” Prasad warns about is a more likely outcome than “liftoff”.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

When Michael Foot rescued Margaret Thatcher

Place yourself for a moment in April, 1982. Margaret Thatcher is a deeply unpopular prime minister. Unemployment has risen to over three million for the first time since the 1930s. Trade unions have staged strikes and protests against her government’s policies.

Labour has a narrow lead in the polls and people are talking about Michael Foot becoming prime minister one day. A section of Labour’s right wing has departed to form the SDP. Labour’s left is influential. Tony Benn was only narrowly defeated in a ballot for the deputy leadership.

Suddenly, a political escape route presents itself to the beleaguered Thatcher government. On April 2, the Argentine military dictatorship launches an invasion of islands known to them as the Malvinas and to much of the rest of the unsuspecting world as the Falklands.

A special session of the British parliament is convened for the next day, to take place on the Saturday morning. Thatcher announces that a naval task force is being assembled and will set off the following week with the intention of forcibly removing Argentine troops.

Patriotic fervour consumes the House of Commons. No matter that the islands historically were part of Argentine until seized by Britain in the last part of the 18th century. No matter that the Foreign Office ignored several indications that the Argentine junta was preparing a military adventure.

Argentine, like Britain, was in the midst of a terrible economic crisis and any kind of diversion would come in handy.

In London, Thatcher desperately needed the support of the Labour opposition. She needn’t have worried. Foot, originally from the left-wing of the party, rose to his feet and said: “There is no question in the Falkland Islands of any colonial dependence or anything of the sort. It is a question of people who wish to be associated with this country and who have built their whole lives on the basis of association with this country. We have a moral duty, a political duty and every other kind of duty to ensure that that is sustained.”

Foot was carried away on a tide of outrage, adding that “we are determined to ensure that we examine this matter in full and uphold the rights of our country throughout the world, and the claim of our country to be a defender of people's freedom throughout the world”. Talk about a whitewash of British colonial/imperial history.

Labour could have urged caution and the opening of negotiations with Argentina. In fact, these has been going on for months and the Foreign Office was basically stalling in the hope that the problem would go away.

But Thatcher’s decision to assemble a task force and send it down to the South Atlantic to “liberate” a few hundred settlers who claimed British citizenship went through without a vote that Saturday. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The fleet sailed the following week, with bands playing and Union Jacks flying. From that moment, a war with Argentina was inevitable. The UN secretary-general Javier Perez de Cuellar tried to broker a deal between the two countries, but was thwarted by Thatcher who had given the go-ahead to sink the aged cruiser General Belgrano on May 2. The boat had been sailing away from the area at the time and many consider its sinking a war crime. 

Languishing at under 30% in the polls before the war, the Tories soared to reach 50% in May 1982. This put them on course for a decisive victory in the general election held in 1983. No small part in the resurrection was, as you can see, played by Foot and the Labour leadership on that Saturday morning in April 1982.  

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Monday, April 15, 2013

Le Carré's anger finds an echo at Guantanamo

John Le Carré, the consummate spy story writer, insists that his first best-seller, was a figment of his own fevered imagination. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was simply, “a bad dream”, he says, in an article to mark the 50 years since its publication.

His story was set in the shadowy world of post-war Berlin, when Western secret services set out to make Germany “safe for democracy”. Somewhat paradoxically, Le Carré says, this saw British and US security heads “positively mollycoddling” former Nazis. It was an ugly process which disillusioned and repelled those who thought the war had been about getting rid of Fascism.

That all seems a very long time ago. But the hunger strike at the Guantanamo prison camp where so-called terror suspects are still being held that erupted over the weekend into open clashes with guards, shows that the secret state retains a corrosive and corrupting power.

Military guards at what is being dubbed Obama’s “gulag”, wrestled protesting detainees into single cells – a process known as “Forcible Cell Extractions” or FCEs.  As prisoners’ resisted, guards fired four “less-than-lethal rounds” of ammunition.

According to their lawyers, some 130 out of the 166 inmates are on hunger strike, many since February. Some are being force-fed espite the brutal practice being outlawed for decades by the United Nations and the World Medical Association.

The prisoners are hunger-striking out of despair. Many are still being, although a majority have been cleared for release. Lawyer Clive Stafford Smith says that his client, Saudi-born British resident Shaker Aamer, who was captured in Afghanistan in November 2001 and brought to Guantanamo in February 2002 has been cleared not once but twice, in 2007 and then by the Obama administration in 2009. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of defence emails have been handed over to the prosecution in a clear breach of procedure.

Not only does Guantanamo remain open, Obama is now directly involved in signing off “kill lists” which decide the life and death of Taliban fighters and other individuals not only in Afghanistan but also in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.

A new book by New York Times journalist Mark Mazzetti, The Way of the Knife, shines light on how Obama has presided over an exponential expansion of the “military-intelligence complex”. From attempting to withdraw from its killing programme, the CIA is now consumed with man-hunting in what Mazzetti says is a “third war”, following Iraq and Afghanistan.

So much so, that  some  operatives, US and British intelligence chiefs included – as well as Republican and Democrat politicians have became queasy about drone warfare. 

Mazzetti describes how Richard Dearlove, head of Britain’s MI6 counter-intelligence agency until 2004 was at CIA headquarters in Virginia in 2001. Watching a strike on a pickup truck in Afghanistan live on a screen, he said “It isn’t very sporting, is it?”

But after 2009, instead of curbing the power of the CIA and the “intelligence” community, Mazzetti document’s how the power of the agency has grown hugely.  Under Obama’s slogan, “The CIA gets what the CIA wants”,  concerns by diplomats like the US ambassador to Islamabad and even Hillary Clinton are ruthlessly overridden.

So, back to Le Carré’s closing thought
Today, the same man [the spy chief], with better teeth and hair and a much smarter suit, can be heard explaining away the catastrophic illegal war in Iraq, or justifying medieval torture techniques as the preferred means of interrogation in the 21st century, or defending the inalienable right of closet psychopaths to bear semi-automatic weapons, and the use of unmanned drones as a risk-free method of assassinating one's perceived enemies and anybody who has the bad luck to be standing near them. Or, as a loyal servant of his corporation, assuring us that smoking is harmless to the health of the third world, and great banks are there to serve the public.
One could and should add, however, that in today’s hollowed-out “democracy”, their political counterparts have truly lost legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of people.
Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary


Friday, April 12, 2013

Thatcher's death leaves Cameron looking second-rate

In their desperation to elevate Margaret Thatcher into a figure who will live on in the hearts of the British people for all time, the Tories are playing with fire. A latent hatred of her policies has re-emerged and the state she regularly deployed is back in action against opponents.

Activists planning demonstrations over the weekend and next Wednesday, the day of Thatcher’s military-style funeral, fear pre-emptive arrests by Scotland Yard. Police have stepped up surveillance and are monitoring social network sites for information.

According to reports, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit, part of Scotland Yard's counter-terrorism structure is working overtime. The NPOIU’s network of police spies and informants in a campaign near you is doing its stuff too.

Val Swain, director of police monitoring group Netpol, said: "This form of deterrent policing is insidious and divisive. It undermines the fundamental human rights of freedom of expression and assembly. If fear of the police is stopping people from even discussing political protest and dissent in a free and open manner, that is a matter of serious concern."

Pre-emptive arrests are, of course, not new. In London, activists were picked up in advance of the 2011 royal wedding. During Thatcher’s regime, miners on their way to picket lines during the 1984-5 strike for jobs were routinely arrested on the most spurious grounds to prevent them reaching their destination. Road blocks were also deployed to block their movement.

The Tory press is also in a flap about the surge in popularity of the 1930s’ song Ding Dong the Witch is Dead, which became an anti-Thatcher anthem. So many people have bought it since Thatcher’s death that it has risen close to the top of the charts. For the Daily Telegaph, the most shocking consequence is that the BBC will play it when the Official Chart Show airs on Sunday. The Torygraph quotes “friends of Thatcher” as saying this would amount to a “serious dereliction of duty” by the BBC.

And that’s what it is all about. Duty. Duty to the state. Duty to the government. Duty to the establishment. Kow-tow. Obey the rules as laid down by others. The country is in a crisis. So do your bit for the nation. Join the army and fight without ever knowing exactly what you are fighting for.

That’s what the Thatcher period was like. She prosecuted class war through the state and while she displayed terrier-like leadership, no such quality was displayed in the ranks of most trade union leaders and certainly none at the top of the Labour Party. And that salient fact remains true to this day, except that now it also applies to the Tory Party too.

Cameron praises Thatcher largely to try and save his own skin as his shambolic “leadership” is questioned by diehard right-wingers. The recall of Parliament so MPs could praise Thatcher was his plan. But Speaker Bercow was against the unnecessary expense, especially as Parliament was due to return next week anyway. Cameron had to rely on Labour leader Ed Miliband’s support before Bercow acceded. Most Labour MPs stayed away, however, leaving Miliband looking a bit stupid.

It is fitting that Thatcher’s funeral procession will be dominated by the military. She was enthusiastic about state violence, counting Chile dictator Augusto Pinochet among her friends. She famously took the salute after British troops returned from her Malvinas/Falklands adventure, assuming the role of the Queen. Buckingham Palace was not amused then and, apparently, is not wild about the funeral plans either.

The political elites are thrashing around in the wake of Thatcher’s death against a background of deep loathing for traditional politics, a deteriorating economy and the build-up of a range of financial bubbles. They don’t have a Thatcher figure to hand who can create a dictatorial regime around a personality.

With right-wing commentators questioning the usefulness of representative democracy at the present time, one can only surmise what scenario plans are being discussed in top echelons of the state in the event of social upheaval combining with weak government.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Scottish independence is not a question of 'empathy', Mr Salmond

Scotland's SNP first minister Alex Salmond is basing his plans for the country's future on the ideas of Scottish Enlightenment thinker Adam Smith. He told an American audience he would be looking to both of Smith's great works - not only The Wealth of Nations but also the less well-known Moral Sentiments.

In this, Smith notes that there is something in human nature that makes us care about others, feeling what they feel not in our senses, but in our imaginations. This "empathy" is, apparently what David Cameron lacks and what Salmond has.

Yeh, right, that's what they all say! Here's Cameron speaking in 2010: “There’s something else you need to know about me which is that I believe the test of a good and strong society is how we look after the most vulnerable, the most frail and the poorest. That’s true in good times, but it’s even more true in difficult times.”

But as we all know, when financial crisis push comes to shove, the needs of capital win out every time. That’s why we are enduring austerity-plus from the ConDem coalition. The only sense of us all being it together is the fact that most Europeans are suffering the same pain.

A recent leaked Scottish government paper showed growing concerns in Edinburgh about oil revenues and public spending projections. Under such pressures would empathy trump the interests of global capitalism, whether in an independent Scotland or not? No way.

Empathy is not some national quality shared by all Scots regardless of their class or politics. If it were, some of the most miserable conditions in any advanced capitalist state would not have been created and tolerated for so long!

The House of Lords economic committee this week called on both the Westminster and Scottish governments to publish detailed studies of what would happen to the Scottish economy in light of a “Yes” vote. In that way voters could consider the implications fully.

But neither Westminster nor Holyrood will do this, for two reasons. First, they are both of them incapable of producing a document that is not riddled with propaganda for their side of the independence argument. And second, neither of them have the least idea of what is going to happen to the economy in the short, medium or long term - not in Scotland or anywhere else in the UK.

They are aboard a floundering ship which they claim to be piloting but that is actually controlled by a phantom crew nobody dares name. These are not supernatural forces, but the invisible forces of corporate debt, junk bond investments and financial instruments whose real value, or lack of it, nobody can pinpoint.

The wreck is imminent in a fresh banking crisis on the horizon. What price empathy when that happens?

We no longer live in a welfare state, but in a market state where the private sector delivers public services for profit. This is just as true in Scotland with its "arms length bodies" with big budgets, big fat salaries for councillor/directors and big fat pay offs for executives.

A Scottish government operating the existing capitalist state form would neither change nor challenge this status quo. We live in a state where benefits can be cut, removed or changed - not because people's needs have changed but because capitalism's crisis has deepened, and this would remain the same in an independent capitalist Scotland.

Of course we must defend all benefits and public spending but we must not stop there.

The independence referendum gives us a chance to debate and decide on a very different kind of society. People’s Assemblies could come together in every part of Scotland to draft a revolutionary new constitution.

That would aim to transfers power from the ruling elite to the people alongside measures to achieve economic democracy through new forms of common ownership of the corporations and banks. That is the real essence of self-determination for the 21st century.

A campaign for a “Yes” vote that is not based on fighting for that kind of transformation, is simply leaving the ship in the hands of the wreckers whilst painting a big Scottish flag on the side.

Penny Cole

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Japan goes for broke as Fukushima takes it toll

The world is watching as tensions rise in Asia, but attention is not restricted to North Korea. About 650 miles away across the sea, Japan is struggling with the fallout from its own real nuclear hell and has taken a huge financial gamble as a result.

Two years ago, Tokyo Electric Power’s (Tepco) poorly maintained installation at Fukushima was destroyed by a massive earthquake and tsunami. There is a new leakage of contaminated water from underground storage tanks.

It comes after a failure in the cooling system left the plant unable to cool radioactive fuel rods in one of the reactors for about three hours. Last month, a rat chewed through some cables and caused a 29-hour blackout in parts of the plant and led to temperatures in the reactors rising once again.

Other equipment has broken down at the site, including devices to measure levels of radiation in the air, while the company is still finding it difficult to stop groundwater seeping into the damaged reactor buildings.

Attempts to decommission the plant and clean up the surrounding land will continue for many years, but are unlikely to be able to completely remove the radiation. Few of the displaced population will want to return.

A new report from scientists Joseph J. Mangano and Janette D. Sherman shows that in the days following the explosions at the four reactor plants, clouds of the radioisotope iodine-131 floated east over the Pacific Ocean and landed on US West Coast states as well as other Pacific countries.

The levels of that isotope were measured in levels hundreds of times greater than supposedly safe levels. The devastation from the radiation has produced hypothyroidism and increased the likelihood of many other conditions in babies born shortly after the incident in Hawaii, Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and California.

The Fukushima disaster led to the closure of several other nuclear plants in Japan, and sent energy prices from all the utility companies soaring. This had a significant negative impact on both the competitiveness of export commodities produced by the corporations operating in the country and on the real incomes of consumers.

So we can be certain that the result of Tepco’s profit-driven decisions to bypass proper maintenance of Fukushima was one of the key causes for the sudden shift in financial policy now introduced by the new governor of the Bank of Japan, Haruhiko Kuroda.

The BoJ has stepped way beyond the failed money-creating quantitative easing it pioneered in the 1990s in attempts to escape the country’s two decades of deflationary slump. Now it is introducing what it calls “quantitative and qualitative monetary easing”.

This new, more desperate programme is intended, in part, to increase export competitiveness by printing more money which will in turn lower the value of the yen. It will see an eye-popping doubling of Japan’s monetary base and a further stretching of credit by more than doubling of the repayment period for government bonds bought by the Bank.

What does it mean? Why are they doing this?

Like all global corporations, those operating in Japan, are in retreat, and haven’t been investing at anything like a sustainable pace.

They’ve been holding on to their profits, knowing that the global economy is contracting, with austerity programmes reducing consumption, and stocks of commodities piling up.

Sony’s profitability lags way behind its South Korean competitor, Samsung, which is Apple’s main competitor (and collaborator) in the mobile phone market. Japan’s car makers are struggling. Mazda said last week that it and its partners’ sales in China, the world’s biggest car market, dropped 21.5% in the three months to March from the same period a year ago.

Nobody much thinks this not-so-new direction from the BoJ will make much impact. If it fails as badly as some are saying it could push the country from years of falling prices – deflation – to hyperinflation.

Japan's combined nuclear and financial crisis is, in its own way, just as threatening as the sabre rattling by its near neighbour.

Gerry Gold
Economics editor

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Thatcher's 'children' alive and well in the mainstream parties

Margaret Thatcher was a class-war warrior who dragged British capitalism screaming into the 20th century at the expense of millions of working people. She lives on in the shape of leaders of the main parties who, in a variety of ways, espouse her reactionary policies.

Individuals can and do make a big difference in history. Thatcher confirmed this in a brutal way. While aristocratic Tories dithered, a petit-bourgeois woman acted decisively at home and abroad.

She used the power of the capitalist state to create a Bonapartist form of rule. The impact of a virtual dictatorship was felt during the 1982 war with Argentina over the Malvinas/Falklands, to the hunger strikers who starved to death in Ireland and the miners’ union which for a year fought a civil war with the Thatcher regime.

Right-wing Tories had long prepared to destroy the union, which was provoked into strike action by a programme of pit closures. While the NUM responded, the leaders of most trade unions sat on their hands, along with the Labour leader Neil Kinnock. Anti-union laws – which remain in force to this day – frightened the TUC and the miners were driven back empty handed

It would be a mistake, however, to see Thatcher’s policies just as some kind of personal crusade, though that element was certainly there. They reflected changed international circumstances which perilously exposed an outdated British capitalist economy.

The post-war consensus actually ended at the beginning of the decade Thatcher first came to power, in 1971 when the Bretton Woods agreement collapsed. This system of tight capital controls, fixed currencies and tariff barriers sustained by a gold-backed dollar fell apart.

What followed was a decade of massive inflation, economic depression, soaring interest rates and class confrontation. In Britain, a tripling of oil prices coincided with a miners’ strike, a three-day week and the bringing down of the Heath Tory government in 1974.

A minority Labour government implemented a series of cuts and also fought the trade unions. It too was defeated. The consensus – which was essentially a period of class compromise accepted by all the parties - was shattered, never to return.

Enter Thatcher, stage right.
Influenced by the monetarist theories of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, she set about giving capitalism a new lease of life. Industries nationalised by Labour after World War II because they were bankrupt were sold off. Public spending was cut back and local councils lost their historic powers to raise revenue. Others, like the Greater London Council, were simply abolished.

And yet, it was a close run thing. The recession of 1981 was devastating and led to mass unemployment, reaching 3.5 million. Huge mid-week demonstrations saw her poll ratings plummet. Argentina’s military adventure played into Thatcher’s hands. So did Michael Foot, then leader of the Labour Party.

When the Commons met on a Saturday morning to discuss the response to the invasion of the Malvinas, Foot gave his blessing to sending a task force. Peace deals brokered by the Peruvians were literally torpedoed when Downing Street authorised the sinking of the Argentine battleship, General Belgrano as it was sailing away from the conflict. 

By the mid-1980s, the intense period of corporate-driven globalisation was well under way. Thatcher’s response was to internationalise the City of London in 1986 through what became known as the Big Bang. From that moment, the financial sector went global and the seeds of today’s present crisis were sown.

Party leaders past and present fell over themselves yesterday to pay tributes to Thatcher. Ed Miliband said he we should “greatly respect her political achievements and her personal strength”. Here speaks one of Thatcher’s children, politically speaking.

Labour has no intention of returning industries to public ownership or of reconstructing a financial system that in large parts resembles a global casino. Miliband believes in monetarism too, citing the need to cut the public spending deficit. His party began the dismantling of the welfare state and the introduction of market structures into the National Health Service. He is for a “responsible capitalism” that rewards “wealth creation”.

Rejecting Thatcher’s poisonous so-called legacy will require a vision and real alternatives to an economic and political system in terminal decline.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor

Monday, April 08, 2013

'Monstrations' take aim at Putin's regime

Dire Straits former front man Mark Knopfler has cancelled his June gigs in Moscow and St Petersburg. With good reason.

“Given the crackdown by Russian authorities on groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, I have regretfully decided to cancel my upcoming concerts in Moscow and St. Petersburg,” he says on his website.

Knopfler’s boycott strengthens opposition to the continuing crackdown on opposition to the rule of President Vladimir Putin, which began last year. Putin’s authoritarian regime is being increasingly compared to that of Joseph Stalin by critics. Next week, opposition leader Alexey Navalny is due to go on trial on concocted corruption charges.

The most notorious protesters to be jailed are the Pussy Riot girl band, who were found guilty of “hooliganism” after a performance praying for deliverance from Putin in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour cathedral back in February 2012.

Their trial provoked a worldwide storm of protest supported by Madonna, Sting, Patti Smith, Paul McCartney and many others, but two Pussy Riot members remain incarcerated.

Corrective Labour Camp No.28 in the Perm region in the Urals mountains, where 24-year-old band member Maria Alyokhina is serving her two-year sentence, has broken the law  by holding her in solitary confinement for over 90 days. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, is being overworked in another prison while she awaits her parole appeal on April 26.

Knopfler’s support will hearten the hundreds of protesters who gathered yesterday in central Moscow, holding up placards with the faces of jailed activists and calling for the “freeing of hostages” and an end to Putin’s regime.

A former opposition deputy, Gennady Gudkov, said that the rally was for all political prisoners in Russia. Gudkov said there were “dozens and even hundreds” of political prisoners. A bigger protest is planned for May, the anniversary of repression in the run-up to Putin’s re-election.

Up to 2,000 organisations have been targeted with inspections and searches in connection with the NGO law. Organisations raided include the respected Memorial group, which was founded in the late 1980s to document the crimes of the Stalin period and beyond.  

The new law says non-governmental groups (NGOs) linked to politics must register as "foreign agents" – an accusation which was scrawled on the walls of Memorial’s offices.

Before the crackdown, Memorial released a CD documenting the 44,500 people whose death was personally authorised by Joseph Stalin. Facsimiles showing Stalin's initials (which appear on 357 lists) scribbled in bright red pencil were published by Moscow News online last week

“For any normal person, this proves beyond the shadow of a doubt that Stalin knew,” said Memorial’s project director Yan Rachinsky,” said. Memorial also provided arrest shots for "La Grande Terreur," an album of arrest shots from the archives of Memorial and the State Archive of the Russian Federation.

The scale of artistic protest against the regime is extraordinary, according to Russian art curators. It includes activist Artyom Loskutov from Novosibirsk.
“The police did a lot to promote him as well,” writes Dmitry Sukhodolsky.

Special agents who usually deal with terrorists and the Russian mafia turned up on his doorstep and searched his apartment. They “found” a few grams of marijuana.  Loskutov was eventually made to pay a fine, became a star on the Internet and moved his “Monstrations” to Moscow.  

The “Monstration” is a parody of Soviet-style parades, where workers from different factories plodded through the streets “voluntarily” on holidays, bearing placards and slogans.

“The return of this Soviet-era practice in the early 2000s prompted Loskutov’s ‘Monstration’ – an annual carnival where young people rid themselves of negative energy by taking these ‘grown-up’ traditions to absurd lengths, says Sukhodolsky

“Siberian police were extremely irritated by these brightly dressed throngs of youth brandishing placards with statements like: “MAMA, FORGIVE ME, I PROMISE I’LL VACUUM!”; “PIGS ARE PEOPLE TOO!”; “KEEP YOUR CITY CLEAN, EAT A PIGEON A DAY!”

Parodying such slogans goes deeper than a joke just as Putin proposes to re-introduce Stalin’s award for the “hero of Socialist Labour”. Toppling the Putin regime needs more than cultural boycotts of course. But pricking the bubble of the system's rhetoric is a great start.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary

Friday, April 05, 2013

Separating rhetoric from reality over general strike call

Talk of a one-day general strike against ConDem policies is being floated, led by the Unite union. While any action against this most reactionary of governments is to be supported, we need to separate the rhetoric from reality.

Last September, the TUC Congress voted to investigate the legality of a general strike. Most legal opinion indicates that, given the scope of anti-union laws, all-out action would be deemed unlawful and challenged in the courts.

So a general strike would have to be in defiance of the draconian legislation introduced by the Thatcher government and upheld by New Labour. For over 30 years, the trade union bureaucracy has run absolutely scared of the laws that prohibit spontaneous strikes, solidarity action and mass picketing.  

Any defiance wouldn’t, naturally, have the support of Labour, which is heavily dependent on Unite’s money. A Labour spokesman said: “There is no consensus for a general strike across the trade union movement. Strikes should be a last resort, and we are not in favour of a general strike.”

The record of actual resistance to the ConDems’ austerity drive by trade union leaders is poor to non-existent. Apart from the civil servants’ PCS union, whose members are on strike again today, there has been no sustained challenge.

Unite and Unison have constantly thwarted strike plans against cuts in jobs and services at local council level. When the ConDems announced plans to reduce public service pensions, Unison general secretary said he had a “war chest” of £20 million to back strike action. In the end, the government went ahead with its plans with minimal opposition.

In a submission to the TUC, which meets later this month to discuss the issue, Unite says it  believes a 24-hour general strike "would be a landmark in our movement's recovery of its morale, strength and capacity to play a leading part in a society crying out for credible and honourable leadership".

But any general strike – even a one-day protest - is much more than that. It is a challenge to the state and its power, its authority and legitimacy.  

You can be sure that the ConDem coalition will meet any challenge in the spirit of Stanley Baldwin, the Tory prime minister at the time of the historic 1926 general strike. He famously declared: “Constitutional government is being attacked… the General Strike is a challenge to Parliament and is the road to anarchy and ruin.”

The TUC had threatened a General Strike as a negotiating tactic to try and prevent a cut in miners’ pay and a lengthening of their working day. But their bluff was called and the strike got under way without any serious preparation.The army and the police were mobilised and strike-breakers recruited.

TUC leaders quickly entered into secret negotiations and the indefinite general strike was called off after nine days, with the miners abandoned to their fate.

In 1926, between 400 and 500 Councils of Action emerged in the course of the general strike. Made up of strikers and their supporters, they took responsibility for co-ordinating the strike, propaganda, communications, transport, entertainment, picketing and the delivery of food. They represented, in effect, the emergence of potentially alternative sites of power to the state at local level.

A showdown is coming with the ConDem government and the state as justified grievances over a pay freeze, spending cuts, the break-up of the NHS and the attack on the welfare state, come together.

Instead of waiting for union leaders to get serious, trade unionists and their supporters ought to prepare for confrontation now. They should create People’s Assemblies in each area, bringing together trade unionists, the unemployed, private sector workers, older people, campaign groups, small businesses, students, black and ethnic minority communities and everyone in the firing line.

Assemblies can do what the union leaders won’t – take seriously the implications of a general strike and the question of who rules Britain. They can plan for a transfer of political and economic power away from a ruinous capitalist elite and their lapdog politicians into the hands of ordinary people. In other words, going beyond resistance.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor