Political Ranting in Prose form WHO?
Just another ranter raving from the lunatic fringe.

Why not? To stop myself going crazy. As my mother used to say, 'better out than in'.

So I'm going to share some of my better tirades, ideas, blags and slogans with you, if you can be bothered to read on.

"It's just my interpretation of the situation" - Outkast


Illustration all credits with the greatest respect go to the great Ron Cobb.

Money or “Who says I’m better off?”

(a beginner’s guide to why you’re not rich)

I woke up this morning thinking about money and what it is. I don’t know why but I seemed to be coming out of a dream phase. Anyway I was thinking about inflation – how a pound is now worth about 10p compared to fifty years ago. On the other hand, my income is probably ten times larger than it was then, so that cancels out and economists will tell me that, ‘in real terms’, I’m in fact better off. In some ways that might seem true but it’s worth looking at more closely.

The musings that follow aren’t new, even for me, but have been spiced up somewhat by listening to a radio programme called ‘Promises, Promises, A History of Debt’ written and presented by David Graeber, a well known anthropologist.

What is money?
The standard answer is ‘a medium of exchange’, that is something, whose value can be agreed on, given in return for goods or services. That value, however, is clearly somewhat variable, as inflation shows. But what about the thing itself? Let’s start with the paper kind.

The title of Dr Graeber’s programme seems to refer to a lovely little phrase that the Bank of England’s notes still carry, ‘I promise to pay the bearer the sum of … pounds’. Did you ever wonder what that meant? If you had, you’d have been told that bank notes were originally promissory notes which could be exchanged for the real thing – metal money, ie coins. We were told that this ended when the UK ‘came off the gold standard’, but gold was never the main metal used for money, that was silver. In fact what that promise on our bank notes meant was the Bank of England owed you so many pounds in weight of sterling silver. Sterling is a fixed standard of purity for silver – 92.5%. Whether a Bank of England £1 note ever got you that, I don’t know, but that was the theory. Currently 1lb sterling silver is worth a little over £250 – that’s inflation. Best of luck getting them to cough up at that rate.

But how did metal become a means of exchange? There have been other things used, like beads and shells, but the main feature seems to be their scarcity value rather than their usefulness. Gold and silver were chosen because they were shiny and gold, at least, didn’t tarnish. Other metals are used as well and we still talk about ‘coppers’ and, in some parts of the country, ‘brass’ and ‘tin’. These are very useful materials, so it isn’t difficult to imagine a time when not everyone knew how to mine and refine them from rocks in the ground, even if you had access to those ores. It would have seemed a magical thing, or at least it did to me when I was a kid. Thus a little lump of copper or tin, that could be worked into beautiful jewellery or a tool or a weapon, would be worth having in exchange for whatever you had to offer at an agreed rate.

Whether or not that scenario ever happened, it would have come under the heading of ‘barter’ and the only advantage metal had over other items was that it took up less room than, say corn, and so was easier to carry. This was for many years the standard history of the beginnings of metal money. However Graeber points out that the actual history is different and, for centuries, people traded almost exclusively on credit. Coinage only came into use as a means to pay soldiers and, in particular, mercenaries. So money and war have a common origin. How surprising is that?

Money hasn’t stopped being magical. If paper notes could stand in for real coins, then the next move was that we could write our own notes – cheques. This worked when a bank was holding our money and would transfer some of it to another person when they received that piece of paper. Magic. Then some smart-arse invented the credit card, which did away with the dreary task of writing out a cheque. But that didn’t mean someone would carry a bag of coins, or even paper, from your bank to the other person’s – it was just the numbers that changed in the ledgers and the banks agreed between themselves who had what. Then came computers and the whole process speeded up exponentially and money became even more abstract and mythical, but it was still just numbers flying around on wires and fibres in the form of electrical pulses. So where was the real money?

Banks and exchanges
We’re told that banks were invented in Italy in the 14th century but the business was around a lot longer than that. All you needed was a large or regular supply of cash* and a customer. The people with the money supply were generally big merchants while, as Graeber told us, the customers were usually rulers who had a war on their hands or in their plans. [* the word cash originally meant ‘box’, like the ones money was kept in, then it transferred to the money itself]

Apart from money-lenders, the other kind of dealers were the money-changers – you may have heard of Jesus chasing them out of the temple in Jerusalem. These exchanged gentile Greek and Roman coins for ones that were acceptable to the priests. Presumably they made a profit on the trade. Elsewhere it seems that no-one bothered much where the coins came from so long as you knew what they were worth compared to your local currency. At least that was the case until nation states became more protectionist about whose money was circulating in their territory. That’s when the exchange, the cambio bank, made its appearance.

Karl Marx defined capitalism as the trade in ‘money as a commodity’. Capitalism isn’t private industry, it’s the trade in money itself. As far as I’m concerned, that’s one of the few things Marx got right. Multinational corporations may be richer than all but the strongest countries on the planet, but the real power lies in banking and currency markets. That’s why there was so much resistance to the UK changing from pounds to euros – one less currency for the gamblers to play with.

Credit & Debt
As far as I can see the difference between them depends on class. If you’re working class, what you owe is a debt. If you’re middle class, what you owe is your credit. If you’re ruling class, you don’t care either way – someone else will pay.

Generally it doesn’t matter how much you owe as long as you’re able to keep up the repayments. It was the banks, mortgage companies and currency traders pushing that logic to its extreme that caused the crash of 2008. And who paid for that? The poor of course. All those huge numbers flitting around the memories of computers across the world may have seemed like fairy dust to those pushing the buttons, but the reality came down to who and what it all was based on – real people making and needing real things, like food, jobs, housing. Wealth means having, or controlling, a lot of those real things by whatever means.

So the real source of wealth is people and all that money – cash, credit, debt – means is ‘how much are you worth?’ The answer to that depends on the person asking the question. In other words, ‘how useful are you to me?’ The answer to that is ‘do you have something I need?’ Well, do you? What do you do, find, produce, transport, package or deliver, that I need? If you tell me that there is something and I believe you, then you’re in credit. If I get it, I owe you and I’m in debt to you. I’m promising to give you something in return. Money was invented as just one way to sort out that agreement but it went on before that for as long as humans have been around.

Is there another possible system? A friend of mine used to talk about the ‘cosmic supply company’. What he meant was, if you give somebody something – a cigarette, a cup of tea, a meal, a lift, some of your time – then there was a good chance that somebody else would give you what you needed another time. Sounds fantastical, but how often has that happened to you? Could we run a world on that system? Who knows? We haven’t tried it for a while.

RA 24-29.8.16

Taxation and off-shore money +

Taxation and off-shore money

The so-called ‘Paradise Papers’ have made this front page news but it’s nothing new. Up to 30 years ago my main mode of long-distance travel was by hitch-hiking and it’s common knowledge that this situation tends to make people a lot more open in what they say than they would otherwise be. So, over that time, I had some interesting conversations. One of them was with the boss of a fairly large and well-known company who talked about the amount of taxes that the government lost from corporations which had large off-shore holdings – he mentioned BP and ICI as two of the biggest. He reckoned that, if the government would offer a deal, some of that taxable income could be brought back home. They never did, preferring to demonise poor people on welfare instead. The scale then of lost taxes versus estimated benefit fraud was 10 to 1. It’s got to be a lot bigger now since George Osborne made it even easier for companies to legally base themselves here, in what a former tax inspector on Radio 4’s ‘Money Box’ called ‘brass plate’ status (ie in name only), while their income was safely stashed away elsewhere. When the government conspires to keep their friends rich at the expense of the rest of the population the best description of the UK is a ‘banana republic’, monarchy or not.

Baccy and guns

Another couple of those highway revelations are worth mentioning here. One was over 40 years ago when I was picked up by the Chief Marketing Manager for British-American tobacco. I asked him if he was at all worried by the anti-tobacco lobby, which was beginning to make itself noticed. He wasn’t bothered at all, pointing out that, even if it was totally banned here, they now had their first factory in China and the market there would dwarf anything in the rest of the world.

The other was the cop who took me one night from Warminster to Bristol. Whether the beret and combat jacket I was wearing fooled him into thinking I was a squaddie, I don’t know but he was quite forthcoming. We got onto the subject of when police carried firearms and he said blithely that it happened a lot more often than the public was aware of. As he was obviously CID, I figured he knew what he was talking about.

Goes to show just how much is hidden from the general view, not in secret, but in plain sight.

RA 11.11.17

The women as usual …

This title is part of a quote from an account in a local newspaper of the Exeter Bread Riot of 1854, it goes on, ’The women as usual were the beginning of the disturbance.’ (Western Times, 14th January 1854) I love that because it reveals a truth that, as managers of the domestic economy, generally, women are the ones who know when the situation is no longer supportable. Whether it’s about hunger, as in the bread riots, demanding safer working conditions, as the fishermen’s wives and widows from Hull in the 1960s, or against murder and disappearances, as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo a decade later, women are often the first into battle. They then force the men into action, sometimes by leading them. The storming of the Bastille may have signalled the beginning of the French Revolution, but it was the march of women to Versailles that sealed Louis XVI’s fate. Likewise, it’s not well known that it was the women who started the Russian Revolution in March 1917, appropriately enough on International Women’s Day*, when female workers in a clothes factory in St Petersburg went on strike and called out the men in other works to join them. The Bolsheviks weren’t consulted, Lenin was still in Switzerland, the Winter Palace was unstormed. Shame that Eisenstein didn’t make a film about that.

Of course I’m talking about poor women, not the ones who become professional politicians, business leaders or academic writers. So, while Theresa May desperately tries to get the Tories to back-pedal and take on some of Labour’s policies, we can only wait and hope for the crunch to come.

[* started by a Jewish garment worker and socialist who was an immigrant from Russia to the USA. Come on chickens … time to roost!]

RA 4-6.10.17

Inferior Practice or ‘Why pick on Trotsky?’

You probably won’t have spotted the bad pun in the title but it’s relevant – there’s theory and there’s practice (or praxis, if you’re a pedant). Leon Trotsky was outstanding at the first and, many would claim, just as great at the second but I’d object that there was a grave mismatch. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to involve a lot of marxist theory or terminology. I will explain one though, which might come up, and that’s ‘dialectics’. Initially it meant a logical discussion between people with opposing points of view. A German philosopher called Georg Hegel proposed a three-stage process – argument, counter-argument, resolution (thesis, antithesis, synthesis in his terminology). Marx and Engels borrowed this and twisted it to their own uses in order to explain changes in human history. I’d describe it as an attempt to base their theories in science – in this case Newton’s Third Law of Motion: action and reaction are equal and opposite. It’s a useful approach but shouldn’t be used obsessively ’cos we’re talking about human beings not billiard balls. That’s where bolsheviks like Trotsky went horribly wrong.

According to Marx and Engels, the dialectics of history meant that the oppressed and exploited working class (proletariat) would inevitably rise up and replace the ruling class (bourgeoisie) through ‘self-activity’. Class distinctions would then disappear and communism would bring prosperity and peace to the world. It’s a nice theory and still might happen but has nothing to do with what is perceived to be communism by its enemies, nor with what’s been done in its name. Trotsky played a major part in that degeneration.

I don’t disrespect him, Leon (Lev) Bronstein, who changed his name to Trotsky, was a real revolutionary, at least to begin with, and did time twice (1899 and 1906) for his activities even before the Revolution. He was also a great speaker and writer. I’ve read the first part of his ‘History of the Russian Revolution’ in translation and it’s an excellent, if obviously very partisan, account. Like many, his positions changed several times, starting with the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party in 1898 (note the name, friends in Labour and those supposed Social Democrats now with the Lib-Dems; it didn’t become the Communist Party until 1918). When the RSDLP split at the London Congress in 1903, he sided with the moderate minority (Menshevik) faction but tried to get the two parts to work together. He didn’t join the Bolsheviks until after the Revolution kicked off in March 1917 (note also that this was the real revolution; what happened in November – October in the old calendar – wasn’t a revolution but a coup d’état). He rose rapidly to the top. This is when theory and practice began to diverge.

Of course Marx and Engels hadn’t been too shy to contradict their own theories. Not content to let the inevitable march of history take its own course, they set up the International Workingmen’s Association (the 1st International) with the aim of steering it in the right direction. Soon enough they managed to throw out the anarchists by the simple expedient of moving the 1876 congress to New York, knowing the anarchists couldn’t afford the fare. So much for self-activity.

The bolsheviks weren’t slow to follow, beginning with the suppression of all the other revolutionary groups in Russia, not forgetting the anarchists, which Trotsky did not oppose. Trotsky began his revisions soon enough, firstly by putting trade unions under military control, so that strikes couldn’t happen, then by putting all the soviets (assemblies), that had formed amongst soldiers, sailors, workers and peasants in the early days of the revolution, under direct Bolshevik control. This was followed by the suppression of the soviets in the armed forces and the reinstatement of tsarist officers. The rationale (ie pitiful excuse) for this was the failure of German communists to effect a revolution after the fall of the Kaiser, thus contradicting Marx’s prediction that the working classes of the advanced economies in the West would rise first. Russia was the wrong place to start the revolution, so they’d have to busk it. This was how Marxist-Leninism was born. Consequently the civil war continued for 4-5 years more against the tsarist White Army and its allies, England and France, sending reluctant soldiers who’d just defeated the Germans to overthrow the revolution … and, of course, the anarchists in the Ukraine.

Then there was Kronstadt. If any Trot gives you the old line “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”, resist the urge to break theirs and say “You can’t make an omelette unless the hens lay eggs.” That’s another thing the bolsheviks got wrong. It’s 1921 and the régime of ‘war communism’ drags on – the Red Army is winning and has just crushed the anarchist Black Army that helped them beat the tsarists, but workers’ rations and wages are still low and peasants are tired of having their produce ‘requisitioned’ without payment (ie stolen) to feed the Party and the army. Strikes break out in Petrograd (St Petersburg’s better name), birthplace of the revolution. The sailors and soldiers at the naval base of Kronstadt at the mouth of the Neva River come out in support. They produce a list of demands which includes, amongst other things, an end to one-party rule by the bolsheviks. As Commissar for War, Trotsky negotiates by sending in the army. In twelve days the revolutionaries are crushed, those who don’t die or escape to Finland are sent to the gulag. The leaders are executed or gaoled (much the same thing in those prisons). Lenin then recognised the justification of the rebels cause by ending war communism and allowing some liberalisation of the economy (the New Economic Policy). Trots will still defend this with old bolshevik conspiracy theories (lies) and omelette obscenities but those are the bare historical facts.

What’s my conclusion to all this? That Lev Trotsky began as a brave and genuine revolutionary but, when the bolsheviks took over the Russian people’s revolution in November 1917, he joined what he saw as the winning side and he then crushed the revolution … yes, he gets most of the credit. To my mind it was effectively over by 1919 when the unions and soviets were taken over completely by the bolsheviks and Trotsky was the person who headed that process. Kronstadt was the last gasp of independence. He remains a hero to many on the Left now because he tried to resist Stalin but he’d laid the table for Josip and the rest was inevitable. Did he deserve that icepick in the head in 1940? It was just cause and effect … or dialectics, if you like.

RA 2-4.8.17

Education makes you stupid ..

.. that’s its job. I’m not the first to make this observation but it probably confuses most people. ‘Surely,’ they think, ‘education makes you smart or makes smart people smarter ..’ That’s the sales pitch it comes with but the truth is more complicated. The simple answer is: it depends on who is providing it and who it’s designed for. One example comes is that, in Victorian Britain when primary school education was extended to all children, girls and boys were usually taught separately. The boys learned geography because they were expected in many cases to travel abroad in the service of the Empire. Girls often weren’t because it might worry their tender minds if they knew that a bigger world existed beyond the borders of their villages or towns.

The word ‘education’ comes from Latin and originally meant ‘leading out’ – presumably from the darkness of ignorance into the light of knowledge. Indeed the road sign for a school used to be a flaming torch, signifying just that. However even a slight dip into the history of schooling shows that it was never that simple. Back in Classical-period Greece the great philosopher, Socrates, bemoaned the teaching of reading as undermining the ability of Athenian youths to use their memories. He might have been right but literacy extends what can be known so much that in the modern world it’s hard to survive without it. But, while wider learning was essential for the rulers and their advisors, for the majority of the population all they needed to learn were the skills of their trade. These latter were learned from your parents or your master, if you became an apprentice. Nowadays it’s called vocational training.

With the rise of Christianity and Islam, education became almost exclusively the domain of the clerics and they guarded their knowledge jealously. Thus in moslem countries the Koran is taught to most children by rote and only in Arabic; in christian lands under Catholic control, scriptures were all in Latin for centuries and anyone who tried to translate them into a modern language stood a good chance of getting burned alive. The Orthodox Church controls its scripture in other, but no less thorough, ways. As societies became more complex, it became more necessary to spread literacy and numeracy more widely in the population, but schools beyond the primary level remained by and large still in the hands of the clergy. This remained the case in England and Wales up to the 1870s and in fact there are still plenty of schools designated Church of England or Roman Catholic. In Ireland this lasted well into the 20th century. The purpose of these schools was to create firm believers and well-behaved, compliant citizens. In their alphabetically arranged ranks, children were taught literally to ‘know your place’, whether that was to be a leader or a follower. These ‘faith schools’ are seen by aspirational parents as the better choice for their children than the anarchy of state comprehensives, especially those in the inner cities and other deprived areas. This is put down to their ‘ethos’ – discipline, uniforms, etc – but is more likely a result of better funding, for whatever reason, providing more qualified staff and more equipment.

It should be obvious by now that I’m talking about ‘official’ education, not all learning. There has always been forbidden, occult learning that had to be suppressed – the province of heretics, wizards and witches and celebrated in stories like ‘Faust’. In the colonies of European empires, learning among the ‘natives’ was similarly viewed and, in the case of slaves, often illegal and punished severely. Later on, during the Cold War, teachers in countries newly independent or still fighting their colonisers, teachers were usually the main targets of right-wing death squads. Now those executions are carried out in the name of fundamentalist islam, not democracy, especially if they’re teaching girls. Meanwhile in the USA, it’s the fundamentalist ‘christians’ who are fighting liberal, science-based learning. Education has thus long been a battleground. For the bosses it’s a balancing act between providing a workforce capable of creating and running the ever more clever technology and having a population that’s thinking for itself. Under the Tudors there was an expansion of schools which led, on the one hand, to Shakespeare and on the other to an educated class who fought a civil war and cut the king’s head off. In the 1960s the UK saw the rise, not only of comprehensive education, but also ‘child-centred learning’. While this approach was well supported by research evidence, it was not implemented with any consistency and failures were seized on by Conservative politicians and the right-wing press as proof of its evil. The student-led protests against colonial wars, exploitation of workers and capitalism in general showed what needed to be done – firstly take control of the curriculum, particularly the teaching of history. The under-classes have long struggled to hold on to their own histories and, instead, been force-fed that of kings and ‘patriotic’ wars to keep them compliant with the current world order. Even the Labour government’s 1948 Education Act failed to touch that. In 1988 the Tories brought in the National Curriculum to put the genie back in its bottle. Now they’re dismantling it for their own ‘academies’ and ‘free schools’ to give them more flexibility, but not too much, while blaming their own straightjacket on Labour. Same old, same old ..

But history isn’t the only area of dogmatism and not all the issues are Political. There have been and continue to be struggles in the teaching of languages, especially ‘correctness’ and grammar, literacy, geography – whose viewpoint to take, mathematics – numeracy or understanding and even science – so much has to be accepted as ‘proven’ before you’re allowed to question anything and, if your results or your equations don’t match the ‘right’ answers, you got it wrong. So, as this essay claims, the purpose of education is to make you stupid .. and compliant, uncomplaining, unquestioning and increasingly in debt. In this way the rulers hope to create the ideal population of zombies to keep themselves in power and wealth. When everyone has the chance to learn to think for themselves, the human race may have a hope to survive.

RA 11.5.17

And all that jazz

Jazz was the dominant music of the 20th century and looks like keeping that status in the current one. Jazz was the classical music of the 20th century. Jazz is a generic word for ‘music of black origin’, as the designers of the MOBO award came to describe it. Jazz is talking dirty, jiving, rapping. Jazz is music for the body, mind and soul. Jazz is whatever it wants to be.

Etymologists may argue over the origin of the word itself but the music it came to describe, it’s generally agreed, arose in and around New Orleans in the early years of the 20th century. However that was not its only birthplace – its African creators were the victims of kidnap, rape and slavery and that wasn’t confined to North America. Calypso, soca, ska, reggae, son, rhumba, mambo, salsa, samba and all the other styles that arose in the Caribbean and Latin America are equally jazz. Purists will object and point to essential elements like improvisation, riffing, but these aren’t absent from jazz’s cousins and even improvisation can be scripted, rehearsed and orchestrated. The point is that those southern sounds have the same roots – consensual miscegenation of African and European music. Nor did it stop there, musicians travel and, when recording became possible, so did music. Consequently jazz recrossed the Atlantic to Africa and was adopted by musicians there. So did its twin, the blues, their bastard offspring, rock ’n roll and more recently another brat generally called hip-hop. From Algeria to Azania the infection spread and gave us rai, mbalax, high life, Afro-beat, soukous, mbaqanga and many more right across the continent have all been touched by Afro-American musical styles and just as often made their own connections with European music. There’s an album of music mainly from Natal, I believe, called ‘Rhythms of Resistance’ that was made at the height of the anti-apartheid movement. On it is a track, whose title and players I sadly don’t know because I only have a bootlegged cassette tape, when a fiddle joins in. In my mind’s eye I could clearly see that one night an Irish seaman wandered into an unlicensed drinking establishment in Durban or Port Elizabeth, bought a drink and listened to the local guys jamming there. Having his fiddle with him and being Irish, he joined in. One of the local musos thought, ‘That works. I’ll have some of that.’ At some other point the visitor said “This is a great shebeen!” “What’s a shebeen?” someone asked him. “A place like this.” ‘OK,’ they thought, ‘we’ll borrow that too.’ So shabini is the word used from South Africa to Zimbabwe for a dive, a blues, a speakeasy, a juke joint.

Of course it didn’t stop with Africa, jazz got to Western Europe very early on and the feedback came from there as well. Since when it has gone global – there’s not a part of the planet that this music, whatever name it goes by, hasn’t reached and where it’s enjoyed neat or blended with the native sounds. Jazz is the quintessential musique sans frontières, like all music in fact. It’s our heartbeat.

RA 26.6.17

Is there any hope ..

More on the suppression of dope (hashish and marijuana) and the persecution of its users.

Part Two – Police and Policy
The first thing to note is that, if you live in the UK, especially if you’re rich, you are beneficiaries of the biggest drugs cartel and people trafficker the world has ever seen – the British Empire. So much for the moral position. We quit the trade in humans in 1807 and, after getting round to abolishing legal slavery altogether in 1833, compensated slave owners with the largest government payout of all time, which appears to have been a major factor in the growth of British industry in that century. However those enslaved people from Africa and the debt-slaves in and from India had been essential as producers of our drugs. Which ones? Opium*, tobacco, tea, coffee, cocoa and sugar (yes, sugar) – all of them psychoactive chemicals to which many of us remain addicted … there aren’t many people in the ‘developed world’ and beyond who doesn’t use one or more of those. The claim “I’ve never used drugs”? Wrong, they’re just not illegal at this time. Then at the start of the 20th century governments began to worry about opium. This, it’s said, was primarily racist because they feared the influx of Chinese workers, both debt slaves and kidnap victims, to North America and Europe was spreading the smoking of opium. Ironic because it was the British who’d made the habit common in China by waging two wars to enforce their illegal trade in cheap opium. At the time the Brits produced the best quality opium in the world in Bengal but this was losing its status as synthetic derivatives, like morphine, could be made from any quality of plant. In 1909 an international commission was set up to regulate the trade and restrictions gradually grew tighter. Nevertheless, until it was superseded by other chemicals, opium was remained a big component in the pharmaceutical industry for many more decades and I may well have been fed some as a child. This is when prohibition began. Cannabis came later.
[* The best book on this I’ve come across is ‘The Opium War’ by Brian Inglis, 1976, who also wrote another on recreational drugs, called ‘The Forbidden Game: A Social History of Drugs’, 1975]

There are accounts of why and how cannabis became a prohibited substance but I like the one I read in one of Pete Loveday’s ‘Russell’ comics (Plain Rapper Comix #2). Hemp is a very useful plant, not just for its medicinal properties but in the garden and in industry. Until suitable plastics arrived, hemp rope was the best you could get and in the age of sail you needed lots, it also provided the sails and canvas clothing – the British navy alone required thousands of tons a year. Simply put, the hemp that’s grown for fibre tends not to be much good for smoking, it has some of the alkaloids but concentrations are low. Consequently smoking or eating hemp and its resin didn’t catch on with Europeans before they had more contact with cultures that did in North Africa, the Middle East and India. It was regarded then as exotic and therefore dubious. Certainly soldiers and sailors who served in those parts tried it and still do (I’ve been told that it was also common among bargees when our canals were still industrial highways). In America, North and South, smoking weed came with black people kidnapped and shipped from Africa, as it was practised in many parts of that continent, whether brought there by the Arabs or discovered locally. That fact didn’t endear it to the racist establishment in the USA, so back to Loveday’s story. By the end of the 19th century the biggest producer of hemp in the world was Russia, then in the 1920s they developed a new method of making paper cheaply using hemp fibre. This scared the shit out of William Randolph Hearst, the original to Rupert Murdoch, who had bought whole forests to provide wood pulp for his newspapers. But Hearst had a friend, J Edgar Hoover, boss of the FBI. Prohibition of alcohol was in force and Hoover was sympathetic to the idea that marijuana, because of its link to jazz and black culture, shouldn’t replace booze. The ban was soon in force and the African-Americans got another stick to beat them. Whatever the validity of that account, it’s definitely plausible. What is certain is that in 1925 the International Opium Convention imposed its first regulation on hashish and the game was on.

Cannabis first became illegal in the UK in 1928 when the 1925 Dangerous Drugs Act came into force but no-one took much notice of it. The only people really affected by the law were the West Indian migrants to Britain after World War 2. I can remember seeing reports in my dad’s News of the World of ‘Jamaicans’ (they were all Jamaicans according to our ‘journalists’) being busted and often gaoled for planting budgerigar seeds in their gardens. I couldn’t see the harm in that but it wasn’t explained. Then in the 1960s white kids began to catch on and the moral panic grew. But this time the youth were often university educated and had friends in high places. The fightback started. So, while it was OK to persecute major black artists like Louis Armstrong, when the cops started busting famous white musicians like Jagger and Richards it didn’t go down so well. That’s when that notorious advert in The Times appeared. From 1967 onwards smoking dope and taking acid (LSD) exploded across North America and Europe and the authorities went mental. I’ve heard Trotskyists claim it was all just a middle-class diversion, which shows how out of touch they were with working-class youth, who embraced it and the music enthusiastically. The powers that be were terrified that these kids were out of their control and becoming too laid back to take work seriously enough for the profiteers. The UK’s anti-drug laws were amended constantly – the first time in 1964, then in ’67, ’71 , ’85 , ’86 , ’91 , ’98, 200, ’03 , ’06 – ’09, the latest in 2016. Drug squads proliferated and eventually became more effective. Likewise customs officers and the coast guards – as prices began to rise, the professionals moved in to smuggle and deal. The problem was that hashish is very bulky and aromatic, marijuana even more so, which made them easy to discover with sniffer dogs, however well packaged the goods were. The best hash from the tribal areas between India and Pakistan, from Nepal, Afghanistan and the Lebanon disappeared, even before wars broke out there, and was replaced with cheap, lowgrade shit from Morocco. Thus giving rise to the claim that ‘the cannabis available now is stronger than you’re used to’. Not me, sunshine! What happened instead was that the smugglers and dealers could make more money from powders like heroin and cocaine, which are harder to detect. The argument that cannabis is ‘a gateway’ to harder drugs is a lie, it was the law what done it. That’s the simple historical fact. Then we got the ‘War on Drugs’ and all hell broke loose.

There’s much that’s good about the American people but their grasp of history is probably worse than of geography. So the lessons of Prohibition hadn’t sunk in but this replay was no farce. Invasions by the USSR and then USA, destroyed peace in Afghanistan and the autonomous Pashtun and Waziri regions of Pakistan. The hashish industry virtually disappeared and was replaced by opium cultivation and heroin production. In the Golden Triangle of Myanmar (Burma), Laos and Thailand indigenous rebel movements and corrupt army generals (warlords) now got CIA backing against the ‘communists’ in China and North Viet Nam. As Brian Inglis described it, CIA planes flew heroin from Laos to South Viet Nam from where the local gangsters shipped it on. According to him this led to the insanity of the widows of Viet Cong fighters selling smack to GI, to come home as junkies if they survived. This was such an open secret that Hollywood made a film called ‘Air America’ (the actual name of the CIA’s airline) telling the story as a comedy with Mel Gibson in the lead!

In Latin America the situation became almost as catastrophic. Previously most of the good weed had come from Mexico and much still does, but interdiction made it ever harder giving rise to two results. One was entrepreneurial heads from LA and San Francisco moving to the forests in Northern California and Oregon where they set up up farms to grow their own. Not having the same amount of sun as south of the border, they went to selective breeding to boost the THC content of their crop. Firstly they popularised ‘sensi’ – sin semilla (seedless) weed – where the female plant produces more resin instead of wasting its energy on making the fruit. Then they created skunk and its relatives … and here we are. The second result of the success of border controls was to hand the business to gangsters who, as we’ve seen, make the Sicilian Mafia look like Boy Scouts. Marijuana still gets through but the big bucks are in cocaine, even more so since the advent of ‘crack’. These gangs terrorised whole countries and practically took over some smaller ones, most famously Panama, as they tried one new route after another to get stuff into the US. Economists are clear that, as long as there’s a demand, a supply will be found and in North America the demand was vast. Everything’s been used – shipping containers, small boats, small planes and, recently it’s said, small submarines but the favourite remains ‘mules’, human couriers poor and desperate enough to take the risk. As Inglis pointed out, and even officials have conceded, customs only finds about 10% of the smuggled goods coming through. The cartels can afford that and factor it into their prices. So prisons fill up with the by-catch. In the UK the men have HMP Verne, on Portland Bill, while the women were sent to Holloway when it was still open. Those people aren’t criminals but the victims of US and European economic imperialism and this stupid campaign to stop their better-off people having fun.

That’s enough for this episode so I’ll sum up. The current state of the world, including the levels of crime and drug misuse, is entirely the fault of governments and moralising pressure groups. Sloppy journalists should have the facts rammed down their throats or told to shut the fuck up – for one thing, everything they label as ‘the 60s’ actually happened in the 1970s. No authority on earth will ever stop humans using chemicals of one sort or another to give themselves a different outlook or a good time. More and more professionals, including senior police officers, have realised the truth of this and that cannabis is not the evil it’s been painted to be. States in the USA have legalised medicinal marijuana and more countries have stopped busting users, even if few have yet made buying dope legal, but still the war goes on and now there’s a psychopath in the White House who embodies everything that’s insane and perverted in the American character. He won’t win either but who knows what more damage he’ll create.

One final footnote: despite the subtitle, I’ve said little about the conduct and the crimes (and I do mean crimes) of police forces in all this because they’d fill a whole book, even to deal with superficially. The biggest of these is that throughout the 1970s and 1980s and probably beyond, there was a secret war between the CIA and the FBI, one supporting the drugs trade, the other trying to stop it. Talk about chickens coming home to roost!

RA 6.8.17

Is there any hope ..

.. for sanity? BBC Radio 4 today (4th August) broadcast a discussion of sorts on the famous advert in The Times 50 years ago in the form of an open letter to demand the decriminalisation of cannabis. The programme was devised and presented by Peter Hitchens, a Tory and so-called journalist for that arseswipe called The Daily Mail. In it he interviewed a number of the signatories to that letter to see if they still agreed with it. All of them did, despite Hitchens’ attempts to get them to revise their position by repeating the lies about skunk being the ‘stronger cannabis’ now commonly available. Sadly, though some of them talked about their objection to prohibition, no-one made the point that it was precisely prohibition that led to skunk, to the spread of addiction to heroin and crack, to the creation of dodgy ‘designer’ drugs and all the criminal cartels and gangs, whose bloody trade wars fill the front pages of the tabloid press and their cousins in other media.

Should I write to the Beeb to request something to ‘balance’ that broadcast? Experience tells me not to waste the stamp. So, if there’s anyone out there reading this, here’s my reply to it.

Part One – Chemistry
Firstly skunk is not stronger than the weed we used to get hold of, it’s just been bred by dope farmers in Northern California to have a much higher content of THC than it normally had. Does that make it stronger? No, it just throws the balance of psycho-active chemicals out of kilter. What difference does that make? Well I’m a smoker not a neurologist and wasn’t aware of that modification when I first tried it, but I didn’t like the hammer blow it seemed to deliver to my brain and I quickly decided to avoid it. Forty years ago BBC’s ‘Panorama’ did an investigation into the current state of research. The reason for it was that the government had just imposed a tax on synthetic tobacco. You can be forgiven for never having heard of that as it soon died a death because it had no hit to it at all. Its development was clearly for a purpose and that was as the vehicle for mass-produced joints of fake baccy laced with THC. This is what the tobacco industry had lined up for us, if dope was legalised and a very good reason for preferring decriminalisation to legalisation. Only the well-off would be able to afford the real thing. The Panorama team interviewed a number of researchers into cannabis and they fell into two camps – those who claimed it was addictive and those who said it wasn’t. Sadly I didn’t get hold of a recording but came away with the distinct impression that the ‘addictive’ trials were using synthetic THC not herbal cannabis.

We’ve been here before – it’s called the search for the active principle. As chemistry became a science during the 18th and 19th centuries, it became clear that what made herbal remedies work were the chemicals they contained. So chemists went looking for them and the pharmaceutical industry was born. They had another idea, however, to remove the ‘impurities’ that caused problems like addiction. Opium was an obvious target, so they refined it and produced morphine (1804) – much stronger than the plant resin or tinctures and … more addictive. So they had another go and produced heroin (1874) and still the penny didn’t drop. This mindset has yet to change. Whatever they’ve evolved to do for the plants (mostly defence mechanisms against pests and diseases), in humans the effects of the chemicals associated with those ‘active principles’ may be good or bad. In the latter case practitioners have learned over centuries how to deal with them. In the case of hemp, on the other hand, there are a number of cannabinoid alkaloids that buffer the effect of THC and make it a much more benign drug. This has been realised by a number of researchers but ignored by law-makers and moralists who hate us having fun. As for tabloid journalists .. forget it, too complicated for their tiny brains.

Whatever the truth is for THC, traditional cannabis, herb or resin, is completely non-addictive and I speak from personal experience over several decades. In fact it has zero-tolerance, which means that, however much you use it, you don’t need more to get high. Medical practitioners who claim otherwise clearly don’t understand what addiction is – a physical change in the body – as opposed to a habit – a psychological dependency. Some people can succumb to the latter with cannabis but it’s easily dealt with if the underlying mental problems are sorted.

So dope is not a dangerous drug except to those who want to control our minds. In fact it’s been used by humans in many parts of the world for thousands of years and has appeared in the archeological record even earlier than alcohol. In our times, until it was banned and replaced, one of the commonest medicinal uses for cannabis tincture (extract in alcohol) was in childbirth, to relax the mother’s birth canal and make delivery easier. So much for it being a dangerous drug.

There’s much more to be said on this topic but I’ll save that for later. Meanwhile look out for more put-downs of the social revolutions that climaxed in the 1960s, the Tories are getting jittery again. Journalists, especially for right-wing rags, like to typify dope smokers as lazy and superficial – talk about pots and kettles!

RA 4-5.8.17

The zero-hours gig

Just listened to an interview and Q&A with Matthew Taylor, who’s written a report for the government on these approaches to employment (or not, depending on your legal advisor). Although he claims an intention to protect the low paid and vulnerable, his main thrust seemed to be avoiding loading too much regulation on small and start-up businesses. While there are people who find these options suit them well, there are many more who are ripped off by them. As I’ve written before, ‘the flexible workforce’ means one that bends over so it can be screwed more easily. Whether or not there is genuine choice in taking such a job was raised but didn’t touch two key points. One is pressure from the Job Centre to take such a job or lose benefits; the other is that once on a zero-hours contract or self-employed, you’re not entitled to Jobseekers Allowance and virtually impossible to claim anything else because your hours, and therefore income, are unpredictable. I’ve met this when driven to sign on with a temp agency and found myself being hired from Tuesday to Thursday, laid off, hired from Tuesday to Thursday … etc. I managed to bail out of that but these days it’s a lot harder. What makes that even more of a rat’s nest now is the time it takes for your benefits to be processed, if you are entitled to claim, since computers have replaced paperwork in the Job Centres. Instead of a couple of days, it can now take 6 weeks or more. I’ve just learned that this situation will get worse because the misgovernment is planning to close about 1 in 10 of those Job Centres. What a surprise …

Meanwhile the self-employed and small-business owners have long been hard-line Tory supporters and see themselves as the most persecuted section of the population. It never seems to occur to them that they get turned over by Tory governments probably more than by Labour. It would be good if it was made easier for people to start a business, if they want to, such as letting them claim unemployment benefit or whatever until the business starts making a profit. There is too much regulation for small businesses but that could be eased by giving them quick access to the laws and regulations small employers need to me aware of and by providing more accessible legal protection and redress for workers. What we have now is a licence to rob and avoid responsibilities to staff.

RA 12.7.17

The business of war

This year is the 50th anniversary of a great book but one that relatively few people will have heard of. It was called ‘Report from Iron Mountain – on the Possibility and Desirability of Peace’ and it was a spoof. At that time there was almost a fashion in think-tanks, like the Rand Corporation, producing studies for governments and industry on current trends and possible futures. Iron Mountain, or more fully ‘Iron Mountain Atomic Storage Corporation’, was real – it was a depository for business records, set up in a former iron mine outside of Boston, for those corporations who hoped to carry on trading after a nuclear war. This was in the 1950s. The firm is still going and has branches around the world, including in the UK, but now of course most of the data is digitised. This name gave the book, which really was a slim volume, credibility as a genuine think-tank report. Its subject, as the subtitle shows, is an interesting one – it was not just a question of the possibility of peace but also its desirability. But surely peace is always desirable?

The book answers that question early on because the premise of the book was ‘business as usual’. The question then was ‘is peace compatible with business?’ The difficulty is that under capitalism capital needs to be destroyed periodically to allow for renewal, reinvestment and more profits. This analysis is basically marxist and, though the book didn’t point that out, American business has been aware of its truth for a long time. The main mechanism for the destruction of capital, the argument ran, is war and in fact we live in a warfare state. However simplistic that sounds, you only have to watch the news. So for peace instead of war, a replacement must be found for that function. The book considers three principal options.

The first, and most popular with liberals, would be a massive programme to bring living standards in the ‘3rd World’ up to the levels we enjoy in the West. However it is is soon dismissed because, while vast amounts of investment capital would be required to to bring this about, it would then plateau and would not deliver the destruction of that capital needed to maintain the capitalist system.

The second option was another massive programme to explore and possibly colonise the rest of the solar system. This has had its proponents recently too. But it would suffer the same problem – an even more massive outlay of capital but then nothing more – just another plateau.

The third and winning option I would summarise as an ongoing series of managed environmental disasters. To quote the book, ‘Nevertheless, an effective political substitute for war would require “alternate enemies”, some of which might seem equally farfetched in the context of the current war system. It may be, for instance, that gross pollution of the environment can eventually replace the possibility of mass destruction by nuclear weapons as the principal apparent threat to the survival of the species. Poisoning of the air and of the principal sources of food and water supply is already well advanced, and at first glance would seem promising in this respect; it constitutes a threat that can be dealt with only through social organization and political power. But from present indications it will be a generation to a generation and a half before environmental pollution, however severe, will be sufficiently menacing, on a global scale, to offer a possible basis for a solution.’ Sound familiar? The advantage of this over the other two is that the destruction would be ongoing and, hence, would keep capitalism running.

Now I’m not suggesting that this is already happening, but I am hoping no-one thinks of mentioning it to D Trump. Of course, what ‘Iron Mountain’ deliberately avoids considering is the ending of capitalism as well as warfare. To quote the book again. ‘War is not, as is widely assumed, primarily an instrument of policy utilized by nations to extend or defend their expressed political values or their economic interests. On the contrary, it is itself the principal basis of organization on which all modern societies are constructed.’ How does that make you feel?

I have massively compressed and simplified the arguments in this work, which is much more cleverly constructed to look like an authentic study for a US government deeply entangled in the Vietnam War and heading for the near-global revolutionary upsurge of 1968. Many people still believe it’s real. If you want to check it out for yourself, it can still be bought on line or downloaded. Happy trails!

RA 21.6.17