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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Tariq Ali:‘How do the 99% compare with mass protests of the past – and can they succeed?’

“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth glancing at,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “for it leaves out the one country at which humanity is always landing. And when humanity lands there, it looks out, and seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.” The spirit of that 19th century socialist is alive among the idealistic young people who have come out in protest against the turbo-charged global capitalism that has dominated the world ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Occupy Wall Street protesters who have taken up residence at the heart of New York’s financial distract, are demonstrating against a system of despotic finance-capital: a greed-infected vampire that must suck the blood of the non-rich in order to survive. The protesters are showing their contempt for bankers, for financial speculators and for their media hirelings who continue to insist that there is no alternative. Since the Wall Street system dominates Europe, local versions of that model exist here too. (Interestingly it was the Wall Street occupiers rather than the indignados of Spain or the striking workers of Greece who had an impact in Britain, revealing once again that the real affinities of this country are Atlanticist rather than European.) The young people being pepper-sprayed by the NYPD may not have worked out what they want, but they sure as hell know what they’re against and that’s an important start.
How did we get here? Following the collapse of communism in 1991, Edmund Burke’s notion that “in all societies, consisting of different classes, certain classes must necessarily be uppermost” and that “the apostles of equality only change and pervert the natural order of things”, became the common-sense wisdom of the age. Money corrupted politics, big money corrupted absolutely. Throughout the heartlands of capital we witnessed the emergence of: Republicans and Democrats in the United States; New Labour and Tories in the vassal state of Britain; Socialists and Conservatives in France; the German coalitions, the Scandinavian centre-right and centre-left, and so on. In virtually each case the two-party system morphed into an effective national government. A new market extremism came into play. The entry of capital in the most hallowed domains of social provision was regarded as a necessary “reform”. Private finance initiatives that punished the public sector became the norm and countries (such as France and Germany) that were seen as not proceeding fast enough in the direction of the neo-liberal paradise were regularly denounced in the Economist and the Financial Times.
To question this turn, to defend the public sector, to argue in favour of state ownership of utilities, to challenge the fire-sale of public housing, was to be regarded as a “conservative” dinosaur. Everyone was now a customer, rather than a citizen: young, upwardly mobile, New Labour academics would coyly refer to those forced to read their books as “customers”, as if to say we are all capitalists now. The social and economic power elites reflected the new realities. The market became the new God, preferable to the state.
But those who swallowed this line never asked: how come this happened? In fact the state was necessary to make the transition. State intervention to shore up the market and help the rich was fine. And given that no party offered any alternatives, the citizens of North America and Europe trusted their politicians and went sleepwalking to disaster.
The politicians of the centre, intoxicated by the triumphs of capitalism, were unprepared for the Wall Street crisis of 2008. So were most citizens, hoodwinked by huge advertising campaigns offering easy loans and a tame, uncritical media, into believing that all was well. Their leaders might not be charismatic but they knew how to handle the system. Leave it all to the politicians. The price for this institutionalised apathy is now being paid. (To be fair, the Irish and the French people scented disaster in the arguments over the EU constitution that enshrined neo-liberalism at its heart, and voted against it. They were ignored.)
Yet it was obvious to many economists that Wall Street deliberately planned the housing bubble, spending billions on advertising campaigns to encourage people to take out second mortgages and increase personal debt to spend blindly on consumption. The bubble had to burst and when it did the system tottered till the state rescued the banks from total collapse. Socialism for the rich. As the crisis spread to Europe, the single market and competition rules were flushed down the toilet as the EU mounted a rescue operation. The disciplines of the market were now conveniently forgotten. The extreme right is small. The extreme left barely exists. It is the extreme centre that dominates political and social life.

As some countries collapsed (Iceland, Ireland, Greece) and others (Portugal, Spain, Italy) stared into the abyss, the EU (in reality the BU, a Bankers Union) stepped in to impose austerity and to save the German, French and British banking systems. The tensions between the market and democratic accountability could no longer be masked. The Greek elite was blackmailed into total submission and the austerity measures being thrust down the throats of the citizenry have brought the country to the brink of revolution. Greece is the weakest link in the chain of European capitalism, its democracy long submerged beneath the waves of capitalism in crisis. General strikes and creative protests have made the task of the centre extremists very difficult. Watching recent images from Athens, where the police have used force to prevent 10s of thousands of citizens entering parliament, one feels that the rulers of the country might not be able to rule in the same old way for too long.
Earlier this year in Thessaloniki, where I was addressing a literary festival, the main concerns of the audience were political and economic rather than literary. Was there an alternative? What should be done? Default immediately, I replied. Quit the euro zone, re-introduce the drachma, institute social and economic planning on local, regional and national levels, involve the people in discussions on how to stabilise the country but not at the expense of the poor. The rich should be made to disgorge the money (by special taxation) accumulated by dodgy means over the last decade. But the visionless politicians at the heart of the system are far removed from any such ideas. Many are on the payroll of the small number of people who own and control the economic resources of a country.
The debt-ridden United States, under Obama (a president who for all practical purposes has continued the policies of his predecessor), has seen the emergence of a new movement of protest spreading to all the large cities. The energy of the young occupiers is admirable. Spring had absconded from the heart of political America for far too long. The frozen winters of the Reagan and Bush years didn’t melt with Clinton or Obama: hollow men who rule over a hollow system where money overpowers all and the much-maligned state is used mainly to preserve the financial status quo and fund the wars of the 21st century.
The fog of confusion has finally lifted and people are searching for alternatives, but without political parties since virtually all of these have been found wanting. The occupations currently being staged in New York, London, Glasgow and elsewhere, are very different from protests in the past. These are actions being mounted in times of growing unemployment and where the future looks grim. A majority of young people – hysterical protestation to the contrary notwithstanding – will not get a higher education unless they conjure up huge amounts of money and will soon, no doubt, be confronted with a two-tier health system. Capitalist democracy today presupposes a fundamental agreement between the main parties represented in Parliament so that their bickering, limited by their moderation, becomes utterly insignificant. In other words, citizens can no longer determine who (and how) controls a country’s wealth – wealth that has largely been created by the citizens themselves.

If crucial questions such as the allocation of resources, the social welfare provisions, the distribution of wealth are no longer the subject of real debates inside representative assemblies, why the surprise at the alienation of the young from mainstream politics or the huge disappointment with Obama and his global mimics? It is this that is forcing people out into the streets of more than 90 cities. The politicians refused to accept that the crisis of 2008 was related to the neo-liberal policies they had been pursuing since the 1980s. They assumed they could get away with carrying on as if nothing had happened, but the movements from below have challenged this assumption. The occupations and street protests against capitalism are in some ways analogous to the peasant Jacqueries (revolts) of preceding centuries. Unacceptable conditions lead to uprisings, which are then usually crushed or subside of their own accord. What is important is that they are often harbingers of what is yet to come if conditions remain the same. No movement can survive unless it creates a permanent democratic structure to maintain political continuity. The greater the popular support for any such movement the greater the need for some form of organisation.

The model South American rebellions against neo-liberalism and its global institutions are telling in this regard. Huge and successful struggles against the IMF in Venezuela, against water privatisation in Bolivia, and against electricity privatisation in Peru, created the basis for a new politics that triumphed at the polls in the former two countries as well as in Ecuador and Paraguay. Once elected, the new governments began to implement the promised social and economic reforms with varying degrees of success. The advice proffered to the Labour Party in Britain in 1958 by Professor HD Dickinson in the New Statesman was rejected by Labour but accepted by the Bolivarian leaders in Venezuela some 40 years later:
“If the welfare state is to survive, the state must find a source of income, of its own, a source to which it has a claim prior to that of … a profits-receiver. The only source that I can see is that of productive property. The state must come in some way or another, to OPEN ITALS own CLOSE ITALS a very large chunk of the land and capital of the country. This may not be a popular policy: but, unless it is pursued, the policy of improved social services, which is a popular one, will become impossible. You cannot for long socialise the means of consumption unless you first socialise the means of production.”

The rulers of the world will see in these words little more than an expression of utopianism, but they would be wrong. For these are the structural reforms that are really needed, not those being pushed by the isolated Pasok leadership in Athens. Down that road lie further deprivation, more unemployment and social disaster. What is needed is a complete turnaround preceded by a public admission that the Wall Street system could not and did not work and has to be abandoned. Its British followers, like all converts, were more ruthless and coldblooded in their acceptance of the market as the only arbiter, backed by a neo-liberal state machine. To continue on this path will require new mechanisms of domination that will leave democracy as little more than an empty shell. The occupiers are instinctively aware of this, which is why they are where they are today. The same cannot be said for the extremist politicians of the centre.
I am full of admiration for all the young people occupying squares and streets in different parts of the globe. They are challenging our rulers with humour, brio and panache. But the hard-faced bankers and politicians who dominate the world will not be easily displaced. A decade of struggle and organisation is needed to win a few victories. Why not unite everyone we can behind a charter of demands – a “grand remonstrance” to the parliament that represents the interests of the rich – and march with a million or more to deliver the remonstrance in person next autumn. The law (imposed after the Restoration of 1666) bans tumultuous demonstrations outside Parliament, but we can interpret “tumultuous” just as well as any lawyer.

Sunday Herald, October 23 2011

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Mark Steel: Why should I be wearing a poppy? The plan must be to honour the dead of past wars by starting new ones

It's Poppy Week, which means if you don't wear a poppy all week you're a filthy, dirty, low-life, scummy traitor. Yesterday, there was outrage in newspapers because a library in Derbyshire would not sell poppies, and a headline in the sports section of the Daily Mail complained: "Why are only 12 Premier League clubs wearing their poppies?"
Everyone on television has to wear a giant, beaming poppy, so there could be a documentary about the tribes of Africa and someone would complain that none of the Masai warriors were wearing poppies. The popular press will demand an apology from the swimming federation because none of the finalists in the 200m butterfly on Eurosport were wearing poppies on the backs of their trunks (with instructions to swim with their arses just above the water so as to keep their poppies visible and thereby pay suitable respects to our war heroes).
And letters in The Daily Telegraph will begin "Sir: while watching Night Nurse Knocking on the Adult Channel on the evening of 7 November, I was shocked to see that none of the nurses in question were adorned with poppies, as might be deemed appropriate in this week of solemn remembrance. My father fought at El Alamein, and one can only be grateful that he is no longer around to bear this fearsome insult."

Because the poppy means you care. So a Conservative defence spokesman will declare that he is so patriotic he wears TWO poppies, Peter Mandelson will announce that he is having a poppy tattooed on his face, and Nick Clegg will convert his house into a giant poppy with an opium den in the loft.
Yet the institutions that scream the most that we must respect our fallen soldiers through poppies and Remembrance Day are the same ones that are most keen to have a new bunch of wars to create a new generation of dead soldiers to remember. This must be the plan; to remind us about the dead of previous wars by keeping a flow of dead coming in from new wars.

Maybe that's why the First World War happened in the first place – the Kaiser, Lloyd George and the Tsar of Russia met in 1914 and said, "We could sort this out peacefully, but then we'd have no way of remembering the dead, which would be deeply insulting to those who would have died, so off we go."

So the poppy wasn't chosen as a symbol of the horror and pointlessness of that war, but as a celebration. The poem on which it was founded was supposed to be a cry from a dead soldier in Belgium that went, "Take up our quarrel with the foe/ We shall not sleep though poppies grow."
The Royal British Legion that sells the poppies often has a slogan at its stalls that reads "1914: The Glorious War". It is possible they are being ironic, but in that case they are too subtle, and might be better with "1914: oh very glorious, with hardly any casualties and only the tiniest hint of shell-shock, and fought to end all wars which worked a treat I suppose".
The sense of war and glory may derive from the founder of the poppy tradition, Earl Haig, the General in charge of British troops in northern Europe, 350,000 of which were wiped out at Passchendaele. Haig was derided as an idiot by almost all observers at the time, including most servicemen, but said: "I know quite well I am a tool of divine power."

I suppose if God hadn't been guiding him there would have been 350,001 casualties. He then had a furious row with Lloyd George because he wanted to be in the front coach at the victory parade, and the surviving soldiers must have wished he'd displayed a similar eagerness to be at the front while he was in the Somme.

So Haig was as responsible as almost anyone for the slaughter, then set up the foundation to remember those who were killed during it. You might as well have let Harold Shipman 
[Harold Fredrick Shipman (14 January 1946 – 13 January 2004) was an English doctot and one of the most prolific serial killers in recorded history with 218 murders being positively ascribed to him, although the actual number is probably much higher. On 31 January 2000, a jury found Shipman guilty of 15 murders. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and the judge recommended that he never be released.] set up a foundation to remember old women who died after seeing a doMost people who sell or buy poppies are probably not doing so in honour of Earl Haig, but are remembering the casualties in their own way and contributing to the charity for injured soldiers. But that raises the question of why these soldiers are dependent on charity in the first place.
It seems the Government that has devised a series of tricks for reducing compensation payments then makes the poor sods beg with a poppy. The next move will be to make returning wounded servicemen dance for pennies in libraries.

But maybe this is why the Government is so keen on the current war – it is convenient to have another one in a place full of poppies, as we have already got the remembrance stuff ready without having to change the flower.
 Wednesday 04 November 2009

In Mexico, a universal struggle against power and forgetting by John Pilger

Alameda Park is Mexico City's languid space for lovers and open-air ballroom dancers: the gents in two-tone shoes, the ladies in finery and heels. The cobbled paths undulate from the great earthquake of 1985. You imagine the fairground sinking into the cobwebs of cracks, its Edwardian organ playing forlornly. Two small churches nearby totter precariously: the surreal is Mexico's facade.

Hidden behind the poplars is the museum where Diego Riviera's mural Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park occupies the entire ground floor. You sink into sofa chairs and journey for an hour across his masterpiece. Originally painted at the Hotel Prado in 1947, it was rescued and restored when the earthquake demolished all around. More than 45 feet long and 14 feet high, it presents the political warriors of Mexico's past, from the conquistador Hernando Cortes to Rivera himself, depicted as a child holding the hand of a fashionably dressed skeleton, the iconic symbol of the Day of the Dead. Standing maternally beside him is his wife, Frida Kahlo, Mexico's artistic heroine. Around them parade the impervious rich and unrequited poor.
What is it about Mexico that is a universal political dream? As in a Rivera mural, nothing is held back: no class martyrdom, no colonial tragedy. The message is freedom next time. The autocracy that emerged from the revolution of 1910-19 gave itself the Orwellian-name Party of the Institutionalised Revolution. This was eventually replaced by businessmen promising a pseudo democracy, which in 1994 embraced Bill Clinton's rapacious North American Free Trade Association (Nafta). Within a year, a million jobs were destroyed south of the border, along with Emiliano Zapata's revolutionary triumph, the constitutional protection of indigenous land from sale or privatisation. At a stroke, Mexico surrendered its economy to Wall Street.
The beneficiaries of the new, privatised Mexico are those like Carlos Slim, now ahead of Bill Gates as the world's richest man, whose fingers are lodged in every imaginable pie: from food and construction to the national telephone company.  A US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks says, "The net worth of the 10 richest people of Mexico - a country where more than 40 per cent of the population lives in poverty - represents roughly 10 per cent of the gross domestic product."

 The last election, in 2006, was won by Felipe Calderon, Washington's man, followed by persistent allegations that it was rigged. Calderon declared what he calls "a war on drug gangs" and 50,000 dead are the result. No one doubts the menace of the drug cartels, but the real "security issue" is more likely the resistance of ordinary Mexicans to an enduring inequity and a rotten elite.
For most of this year, thousands of los indignados have taken over the massive parade ground known as the Zocalo facing the National Palace.  The occupations in Wall Street and around the world have their genesis in Latin America. The difference here is there is none of the angst about the protestors' "focus". As in all places where people live on the edge and the state and its cronyism cast lawless shadows, they know exactly what they want. Ask some of the 44,000 employees of the national power company, who prevented the fire sale of the national grid until Calderon sacked them all; and the striking copper miners of Cananea, whose owners funded Calderon's campaign; and the former pilots and stewards of the national airline, Mexicana, dissolved in a sham bankruptcy that was a gift to the private airline industry.
These angry, eloquent and often courageous people have long known something many in Europe and the United States are only beginning to realise: there is no choice but to fight the economic extremism unleashed in Washington and London a generation ago. Employment, trade unionism, public health, education, "life itself", says Manuel Lopez Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City who ran against Calderon, "has since been struck by a political and economic earthquake". Since Calderon came to power, 30 journalists have been killed, ten this year alone, says the Committee to Protect Journalists. Again, the drug cartels are blamed, but suppression of a national resistance, co-ordinated with the United States, is also the truth.

 Unlike in the US and Britain, many journalists, some of them inspired by the rise of the Zapatistas in the 1990s, have thrown off the patronage of the political and business elite and pursue what they call "civic journalism". The second largest newspaper in Mexico is La Jornada, famous for its fearless investigations and campaigns and for surviving mostly on subscriptions; it carries no commercial advertising. Reminiscent of newspapers before they were consumed by corporations, there is nothing like it in Britain; it reflects much about Mexico City that is surprising and enlightened.
In the National Palace the presence of Robocop guards is at once overwhelmed by Diego Rivera's most epic mural. Painted  between 1929 and 1945, it follows the walls of the staircase, spilling, like his Alameda work, spectacles of revolution and tragedy, hope and defiance. When I filmed it 30 years ago, I tried unsuccessfully to write a narrative to the pictures. In condensing and bringing alive 2000 years of history, it is art of which Europeans and North Americans are sometimes disdainful yet envious; for it charts the struggle of ordinary people, uniting and celebrating them, and identifying their true political enemies. Seeing it again, I am struck by how it speaks for us all.

10 November 2011